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I grew up devouring Nancy Drew. The Sisters of Charity who ran our little school library would shake their wimples every time I, a precocious reader, asked for the next three in the series. And if I couldn’t have the next three, I was crushed for at least a week, before I could try again.
I always wondered why these stories, formulaic as they were, had such a great impact on me. In the pandemic I came upon an archive that had every Nancy Drew book in order, and it became my mission to reread these, looking for clues (as Nancy would) about why her stories stayed with me. At the age of 66, I was able to fulfill my long-existing disorderly reading habits, starting with The Secret of the Old Clock. From there it was a wonderful voyage right through to the final book in the series, No. 56: The Thirteenth Pearl.
I knew that some of the books had been updated (witness the references to NASA in The Mystery of the Moss-Covered Mansion and to Robby the Robot in The Crooked Banister). Through them all, Nancy remained 18, thin and blue-eyed. Bess was a plumpish blonde and George a boyish brunette. Nancy’s hair stayed the same colour too, although the description of its tone shifted in the series: “titian” in the earlier books, then “titian blond,” “reddish blond,” then “strawberry blond.” I relied on the book cover illustrations, and I knew, just from the way she behaved that she was a “ginger,”
At 66, these seven lessons from the past resonate even more profoundly with me. They’ve survived more recent criticisms of Nancy Drew books. Yes, her life was a privileged one, yes, you could find examples of what we would identify now as racism, sexism, ableism and misogyny. But even taking these into account, the lessons I learned then still ring true. So put on your six-year-old kid’s hat (I told you I was a precocious reader), and travel back with me to my golden era of reading Nancy Drew: 1961 to 1964.
Lesson 1: Grown-ups really do listen to young people and will respect their views and talents. That was an enormous revelation to me – that Nancy, all of 18, along with her “chums,” Bess and George, had agency to take on new mysteries with the support, not only of their parents and caregivers (Hannah Gruen you rock!), but with adults with authority such as police. Specialists in their fields including, jewellers, professors, scientists, art museum curators, and aerospace engineers, all took her very seriously. Being a voiceless kid, this gave me hope.
Lesson 2: Words are wonderful and magical. I learned so much vocabulary by reading Nancy Drew. I read each book with a dictionary beside me so I could figure out words that were a complete mystery to me, an Anglo kid growing up in Québec City: Thugs, chagrin, nonchalance, taciturn, mashie, ruse, ministrations, foolhardiness, vexation, crestfallen, ruffian, truculent, chiding, frocks …. I got older before I realized none of these was handy for everyday conversation, but I loved them nonetheless.
Lesson 3: Sleuthing is only impactful if the names of the villains strike fear and loathing into your heart. Not just the names, though – the adjectives used to describe them held equal weight: That rascally scoundrel Kit Kadle, that surly Bushy Trott, that slovenly Salty Bumbleton, that unsavoury Flip Fay, that shifty-eyed Clem Rucker, and that hard-faced thief, Slick Fingers O’Mallery. Nancy wasn’t going to waste her efforts on bland ne’er-do-wells, so neither was I.
Lesson 4: In order to be a well-rounded sleuth, you must be multitalented, athletic, sporty and fearless. You must drive a convertible through all manner of treacherous situations. If needed, you must do ballet, and well. You must be able to deftly manoeuvre speedboats, sailboats, rowboats and canoes through storms and tempests. You must be able to cook well, especially moulded vegetable salads (though “slightly plump” Bess was the foodie in the group). You must be able to climb walls, bravely explore any cave you come upon, hurtle yourself over any barriers you face, ride all sorts of animals, understand foreign languages, and be an expert decoder. Although I had 12 more years to go before I was Nancy’s age, I despaired of even coming close to her extraordinary abilities.
Lesson 5: Your friends can’t just be garden variety either. They must be equally able to put their daily lives aside to venture out with you to the local mysterious/haunted/ abandoned local estates/mansions/castles – all very close to or in River Heights. In later books, Bess and George, with very little notice, had to pack their bags to travel to dude ranches, abandoned ski hills, Japan, Scotland and France. How I dreamed of having the kind of parents who would even let me outside after dark.
Lesson 6: Boyfriends can be handy, but never let them interfere with what you want to do. Nancy has an off-and-on relationship with Ned, as do Bess and George with some of his pals. He escorts her to the odd dance, can break away from his college or part-time insurance job at the drop of a hat, and is known to be able to find her when she’s gotten locked into a hidden compartment or buried under rubble. Ned is helpful, for sure, but he’s easily dismissed when it’s time to get down to the business of sleuthing. Interestingly, he keeps coming back for more.
Lesson 7: All well-written chapters end with exclamation points! Sadly, I developed a bad exclamation-point habit well into adulthood, and I fear that it’s too late to change now. Drat! How can you not want to keep reading late into the night when chapters end with “Oh Nancy, you must find her!’; " An agonizing scream cut through the silent woods!”; or “Nancy felt a clammy hand brush across her face and fumble for her throat!” Even writers like Terry Pratchett who believed that five exclamation marks are the sure sign of an insane mind, could not have faulted Carolyn Keene’s exquisitely perfect use of them. It broke my heart when I realized that there was no Carolyn Keene!
Now not all these lessons have been helpful to me in my grown-up years. I must confess I left a few broken-hearted men in my wake. And I do so love to use exclamation points, though NEVER five in a row- at least not so far!!!! But the greatest lesson I learned from Nancy Drew was that curiosity, when coupled with kindness and an open heart, is a very good thing indeed. And it doesn’t hurt to be very good at asking the right questions to the right people at the right time, either.
Cathy Lyons lives in Golden Lake, Ont., on the shores of the Bonnechere River.
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