Nancy Drew and Company: Culture, Gender, and Girls’ Series ed. by Sherrie A. Inness

Nancy Drew and Company

Information

GoodreadsNancy Drew and Company
Series: None
Age Category: Adult
Source: Library
Published: 1997

Summary

This anthology includes critical essays on various girls’ series from L. M. Montgomery’s Anne books to Cherry Ames, Nancy Drew, and Judy Bolton. Lesser-known works such as the Linda Lane and Isabel Carleton books are also covered.

Star Divider

Review

Nancy Drew and Company, published in 1997, argues that the girls’ (and children’s) literature, though long overlooked by the academy, deserve to be serious objects of literary study. Through such literature, Sherrie A. Inness asserts, we can gain a greater understanding of our history, both in how it is depicted in popular literature, but also through the ways in which literature seeks to shape history. Girls’ series provide role models for readers that can simultaneously challenge and reinforce class, gender, and social roles. Thus, these books reveal, as Inness argues, “our culture’s values, mores, and biases” (10). The essays in this book explore a variety of girls’ series, from more popular books such as Nancy Drew and Cherry Ames, to some lesser-known series such as the Linda Lane and Isabel Carleton books. Each essay opens a window into how literature works to shape society’s understanding of womanhood.

If there is any recurring theme that seems to link all the essays in Nancy Drew and Company it is that girls’ series often sought–usually unsuccessfully–to balance new ideals of womanhood with old ones. That is, even as these series asserted girls’ independence, assertiveness, and agency, they sought to convince readers that the protagonists were not interested in changing the status quo. Automobile girls might drive across the country seeking adventure, but they were also still concerned about appearing feminine and dating boys. They might be mistaken for suffragettes, but they were quick to tell everyone that their motives were not political. In the same way, many of the other heroines of girls’ series tried to balance domesticity or motherhood with their independence, creating contradictions that were never fully resolved.

These contradictions, however, are possibly what helped to make such series so successful. No matter what a reader was looking for in a heroine–assertion or passivity, independence or romance, adventure or domesticity–these qualities could be found in girls’ series. My own theory is that many modern adaptations of Nancy Drew have failed because they do not match up with readers’ expectations. And readers’ expectations can be vastly different precisely because of the way the original books are written. Some readers might laud the feminist bent of Nancy Drew, while others appreciate her old-fashioned values. Nancy Drew is a contradiction–something contemporary adaptors have to grapple with.

Nancy Drew and Company relies on the fame and popularity of Nancy Drew to lure in readers, but all the essays included are thought-provoking and fascinating. The book will have readers rethinking old favorites, but will also introduce them to many more interesting pieces of girls’ literature that have hitherto faded into history.

4 stars

Cherry Ames: Senior Nurse by Helen Wells

Cherry Ames Senior Nurse

Information

Goodreads: Cherry Ames: Senior Nurse
Series: Cherry Ames #2
Age Category: Children’s
Source: Library
Published: 1944

Summary

Now a senior nurse, Cherry has to focus on earning her black graduation bow. But she still has fun in the wards–like the time someone lets a rabbit loose in the children’s section! Plus, she has a new potential beau, a doctor known throughout the hospital as a cyclone. But then her attention is drawn to the mystery surrounding Dr. Joe’s new treatment, a penicillin that could help the war effort. No one is supposed know what he’s working on in his lab, but, soon, rumors spread throughout the hospital, and the penicillin formula could be in danger.

Star Divider

Review

The Cherry Ames books are a classic example of a “girls series”–books featuring young women who taken on more independent roles as teenage sleuths or perhaps career women. Cherry Ames is a nurse and her series trumpets the nobility of nursing as a calling, to inspire readers to sign up to help the war effort. (This book was first published in 1944.) But the Cherry Ames books have a vivid, realistic feeling that make them still relevant today. Cherry is no Nancy Drew, static and perfect. Rather, she is a young woman who sometimes makes mistakes, but who tries hard and ultimately finds her way. Readers who love classic stories will find much to delight them in Cherry Ames.

Cherry Ames: Senior Nurse admittedly loses a bit of the charm from the first book, since Cherry is in her third year of school now and she feels much more assured in her career. Though she may look forward to graduating, and though she may be wavering between serving as an Army nurse or on the home front, she really has no fear that she will not graduate at all. Much of the drama, then, comes from interpersonal conflicts. She has “adopted” a probationary nurse who does not seem to want her mentorship, and she has a whirlwind flirtation with a a fiery-tempered doctor, who expresses his interest by ordering Cherry around: “I’m going to take you to the dance” and so forth. (Yeah, this romance is dated, to say the least.) The stakes are just so much lower.

Cherry’s story still has a human interest appeal, however, because Cherry herself feels so human. Even as a senior, she still likes a good practical joke, and she will bend the rules sometimes to have a little fun or to try to cheer up a patient. She also struggles with her own passionate temper, sometimes judging someone too hastily or flaring up at slight provocations. Though the book presents nursing as a higher calling, Cherry is no saint. And, in that, she is relatable.

Of course, since this book was originally published in the 1940s, some aspects of the book are dated. While Cherry’s job as a nurse seems to make her more sympathetic than other protagonists to people who are not white middle-class women, the book does show its biases in the way it depicts some of the patients Cherry encounters. While Cherry still gives them the best of care, the author does imply that some backgrounds will make a person less cleanly, agreeable, or socially acceptable than others. Readers should be aware going into the book that it does not live up to contemporary values, but, indeed, centers white middle-class women and their stories.

The Cherry Ames books can be approached a variety of ways by readers. They may appeal to readers who like old-fashioned stories that are focused on character development and “wholesome” fun like going to dances or going out for a soda. But they are also a fascinating glimpse into the concerns of the past–not only concerns about the ongoing war efforts, but also concerns about gender and professionalization.

4 stars