GIRL SLEUTH: NANCY DREW AND
THE WOMEN WHO CREATED HER
Melanie Rehak

 


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Harcourt, Sep 2005
Reviewed by Joy Calderwood

For seventy-five years, American girls have been reading the adventures of Nancy Drew, the level-headed teen detective who always gets her crook. Nancy evolved along with American culture, staying au courant with law and fashion but ignoring war and depression, giving girls a friend they could relate to and a world they could rely on. It took an entire syndicate of creators to give Nancy such endurance. In GIRL SLEUTH, author Melanie Rehak details jealously guarded secrets of the Stratemeyer Syndicate.

The name of Carolyn Keene on the cover of the Nancy Drew series is a pen name. Behind it was the extraordinarily creative brain of Edward Stratemeyer, conceiver of Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, the Bobbsey Twins, and many other series who had their day in the early twentieth century. Stratemeyer was known for his ability to instantly spin a plot on whatever topic was suggested to him. He had so many story ideas that he hired writers to keep up with them. The Nancy Drew series had barely begun when he died.

Edward’s daughters inherited the profitable Stratemeyer Syndicate, including his most lucky discovery, syndicate writer Mildred Wirt. While Harriet and Edna adapted to the challenges of writing book outlines and guiding Nancy’s character, the formidably prolific Mildred adapted her writing to their learning process. All was not harmony. Melanie Rehak tracks the relationships between Harriet, Edna, and Mildred, the vicissitudes of the Nancy Drew series, and its place in the world.

Ultimately, Rehak’s strongest interest is in the role of Nancy Drew in American culture. Nancy was “born” shortly after women were given the vote, and Nancy was a role model for a generation of girls who had newly acquired the right to rely on themselves. Harriet Stratemeyer Adams nursed Nancy’s image through the “backlash” fifties until she was embraced by the women’s lib movement as the icon of feminine independence.

GIRL SLEUTH is in part a social history, in part a backstage look at a little-known part of the publishing industry, and also a biography of some very human women. In the main, Rehak seems to report straightforwardly what she has found in the family’s papers. Additional, modern sources include some interviews that enable her to pump blood into the veins of her subjects in a way that the early archives do not. She isn’t always evenhanded when telling of the conflicts between Harriet and Edna. For example, her account of Harriet’s trials leaves out an important fact. While Edna, later in her life, sits in Florida drawing the profits, leaving Harriet to do the work and refusing to let Harriet raise her own salary from an appalling $37.50 a week, poor Harriet is also drawing from the Syndicate’s profits – sixty percent of them. We only know this because Rehak mentions it once, earlier in the book.

A deserved partisanship does emerge from GIRL SLEUTH – for Mildred Wirt. Mildred, a pioneer in feminine role-busting, carried an incredible work ethic throughout her long life. Her many books and newspaper columns were produced on schedule, no matter what else was going on in her life, whether it be birth, death, or another household contretemps. She died at age ninety-six, after turning in her newspaper column for the day. Rehak may not have intended to have this effect, but she convinced me: Nancy Drew was the model and mirror of a culture – Mildred was a true heroine.

The title of GIRL SLEUTH: NANCY DREW AND THE WOMEN WHO CREATED HER seems to suggest an opportunity for the reader to indulge in happy nostalgia. Nope. You will be getting a social history with psychological studies. During the first part of the book, I was surprised at how dry the treatment was. It was interesting, don’t get me wrong, but my impression was that the author and editors were leaning over backward to avoid the “stigma” of popular history. There are liberal quotes from sources, details of year and location keep our feet on the ground, no literary flights send the imagination winging. Where you will find the juicy parts is among the personal interactions.

First and foremost, author Melanie Rehak’s feet are set on a platform of women’s rights. If you are an American woman sharing her concerns, you are her intended audience. Few others need apply.

Nov 2005 Review

[Note: GIRL SLEUTH won the Edgar Award for Best Critical / Biographical]

 

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