One of my most prized possessions is my collection of Nancy Drew books and games. My most valuable book is a first-edition Hidden Staircase from the 1920s (no book jacket, sad to say) and I have both versions of the board game, the Nancy Drew Cookbook (mmmm… “Mystery Corn Pudding”), the Mad Libs, the graphic novels, Nancy Drew’s Sleuth Book and Nancy Drew’s Guide to Life.
I had a small shelf of these left over from childhood, but I did most of my collecting as an adult. I have fond memories of sitting in the back seat of the station wagon on the way back from Rye beach (facing backwards, no less, while reading, which I would never attempt today) with a Nancy Drew and one of those bookmarks with the knitted fringe on the top. I knew the books were formulaic, even then—I mean, literally formulaic, as in written by dozens of different people based on a specific formula from the editors—but the very predictability of them was comforting. Nancy kept a cool head in every situation, even when locked in a trunk and running out of oxygen, and as a reader you could experience both the thrill of danger alongside the absolute certainty that not only would Nancy prevail, but that she would solve the case with her dignity and
common sense intact.
The teenage girls in Nancy Drew books were more like retired ladies than kids. They enjoyed luncheons at quaint country inns, fancy fundraisers at antique-filled estates, and lake outings with their “frequent dates,” Burt, Ned, and Dave. The most physical contact that ever happens between Nancy and Ned is when they get caught in quicksand and Nancy has to climb on Ned’s shoulders to go for help. Everyone has a standard set of descriptors: Ned is dependable, Bess is “plump,” George is a “tomboy,” Nancy’s father is a “handsome lawyer.”
I’m reading some of these books to my daughter right now, and she loves them for the same reason. Plus, the vocabulary used is formal in a way that allows me to give mini-vocabulary lessons as I read. There are no murders in the books, but a lot of swindlers and crooks, counterfeiters and grifters, but there is a bigger problem: there is so, so much racism. I’m reading Nancy Drew to her in the week after Charlottesville, realizing that skipping over the racist parts just isn’t going to be enough.
I didn’t notice so much racism in the Nancy Drews when I read them as a child in the 1970s. For instance, in one book, which focuses on a “gypsy curse” a young girl is depicted as wild and defiant because of heredity, and it is considered reasonable by all involved that she be raised by her “respectable” white grandmother. Shifty characters are middle eastern and Jewish, and any African-American characters either struggle with poverty or are housekeepers. What’s even worse is that these versions—the ones revised in the 1950s—are the revised, updated texts.
The Nancy Drew of the 1930s, the original Nancy Drew, was a vastly different character. She was immature, even prone to outburst, kind of a wild child. No chicken salad luncheons at the Inn at Silver Lake for her. In the first book, she slaps a police officer in the face. She regularly defies her father (they do not have the harmonious relationship they have in the rewritten, 1950s versions) and solves mysteries in ways that the later Nancy Drew would see as unethical or at the very least, ill-mannered.
But the racism in the older books is just out-of-control unreadable. Italian characters, Irish characters, African-American characters are lazy, shifty, or criminal, their dialect is exaggerated and illiterate. “Masculine women” usually are criminals (except for George), actors are “effeminate and superstitious,” and I won’t even go into the offensive descriptions of Jewish characters. Which brings into question why I would even want to collect these books, or even have them in my house. Maybe what I really want to do is rewrite them again—revise them for the twenty-first century, with the feminist rebellion intact but without the racism and discrimination.
Or maybe I want to just want to rewrite 2017 itself. Just hit delete, and start over, if that were only possible.