It took me about a year, but I read all 56 of the original Nancy Drew Mystery Stories, the classic titles available with the yellow spines. Although I had grown up with Nancy Drew, I had never read the entire collection (I think I read 46 of them). And I certainly did not remember everything I discovered during this year re-read. Below are some my observations about reading Nancy Drew as an adult.
To begin, it is difficult now not to see the classism inherent in the Nancy Drew books. I knew as a child, of course, that Nancy was rich, popular, and attractive. She had her own car and enough of her dad’s money to go on as many vacations and trips as she could ever wish. But I did not realize just how often Nancy and her mysteries favor the wealthy. Nancy helps poor, people, of course, but the books generally depict only two types–the genteelly poor (those who used to be rich, but have fallen on hard times and need Nancy to find their lost inheritance so they can regain their former social status) or the “rough” poor–the criminals in the stories. Basically, anyone in Nancy’s world who is badly or gaudily dressed, wears too much makeup, lives in the “wrong” part of town, and has bad manners has to be the villain. Sometimes, “nice” poor people can be objects for Nancy’s charity, though.
The Nancy Drew books are also frequently discussed in terms of the way they depict race. Though many of the earlier books were revised in an attempt to remove the racism that even readers at the time were denouncing, this project did not altogether succeed. Often, the books simply remove any characters who are not white. Other times, the books tend to stereotype other cultures, depicting Others as superstitious, backwards, or just plain “strange” because they are different. The Nancy Drew books love to have Nancy travel to other countries, too, and these books often prove opportunities for the author to drop knowledge that sometimes seems of questionable origin.
And we can’t forget the fat shaming! When I was growing up, I was aware that Bess is the “plump” one, George is the boyish athletic one, and Nancy is the popular and smart one. Well, I certainly did not realize exactly how many times George (usually) makes fun of Bess for eating. It comes across as particularly nasty since it’s coming from Bess’s own cousin and supposed best friend. And it is frankly baffling because the illustrator usually depicts Bess as about the same size as George and Nancy! And, when the books describe what the trio is eating (which the books love to do), the three typically eat the same meal. Sometimes Bess has an extra slice of dessert. I would, too.
These are, of course, the really bad things that I now notice about the Nancy Drew books, that I somehow managed to overlook when growing up because all I really cared about was solving the mystery. Who the villains were and what Bess was eating really did not matter to me. However, I also noticed some benign quirks of the series–things that become more evident when one reads the books all in a row.
For example, Nancy’s world is really interesting to me because it is at once very vague (no points for worldbuilding here) and full of stuff. Somehow, Nancy’s small Midwestern town is located next to a lot of prime castles, mansions, and abandoned manors. Usually once owned by some eccentric who left clues and puzzles in the estate. It also seems to be a really bustling place because Nancy has been trained in dancing, acting, and art. She can ski, too, and ice skate and trick ride like a professional. She seems to live in a small town with all the amenities of a city. And her father the lawyer? He has no defined specialty, but takes on a variety of weird cases, ones that usually seem to require a detective and not a lawyer at all. I have no idea what is going on in River Heights, but it always makes for a great story.
And the Nancy Drew formula is not to be missed. It changes over the course of the series, but the early books in particular almost always seem to have Nancy’s car narrowly being missed by a falling tree–or perhaps she will get caught in a bad storm or almost be driven off the road. The same blue roadster that gives her independence also brings her danger. (She also gets several new cars throughout the series.) The ending usually involves Nancy being knocked out and kidnapped, before being rescued by her friends–though sometimes she rescues herself. When this formula changes near the end of the 56 books, it almost feels like a tragedy. Are we even reading Nancy Drew?
In the end, I enjoyed revisiting the Nancy Drew books, even though I cannot overlook their flaws. They provide a fascinating glimpse into a period of history when questions of femininity were being debated and discussed–just as they still are today. Nancy walks the line between domestic and independent, showing that a woman can be smart, assertive, and bold, even as she can be charming and polite. Nancy Drew inspired me when I was growing up, telling me that I could do anything if I had enough daring. And that is something I cannot forget.
Read the Reviews!
- Reading Through Nancy Drew (Books 1-10)
- Reading Through Nancy Drew (Books 11-20)
- Reading Through Nancy Drew (Books 21-30)
- Reading Through Nancy Drew (Books 31-40)
- Reading Through Nancy Drew (Books 41-50)
- Reading Through Nancy Drew (Books 51-56)
- What You Didn’t Know about Nancy Drew
- Books if You Like Nancy Drew
- Growing Up with Nancy Drew
- Why I Still Love Nancy Drew