Friday, November 2, 2007

Fictional Role Models, Part One: NANCY DREW

This is the first in a series of entries about some of the wonderful fictional characters who serve as role models for young women. Sure, I could talk about real women who fill that role, but as someone who fell in love with fiction at an early age and who has continued that love affair throughout her life, there's a lot to be said for the enduring, wonderful characters whose exploits and self-assurance show girls everywhere that goals and dreams can be achieved.

At 18 years old, the titian-haired, brainy beauty named Nancy Drew wore pumps, drove a roadster, solved mysteries, outwitted evil, and did it all with such courage and aplomb she was impossible to resist. As a child, I adored Nancy Drew and wanted to grow up just like her. I voraciously read my collection of books, used to dream about finding a tree that grew Nancy Drew books (such a weird kid, was I) and saved my 25¢ allowance for weeks in order to buy a missing title.

Nancy Drew had almost everything. She had her own car, two loyal friends who'd drop everything to help her out, a father who was a famous lawyer, a dreamy boyfriend in college, and the respect of everyone who heard her name. The only thing she didn't have was a mother. Thank goodness housekeeper Hannah Gruen was there as a surrogate.

When I was young, the world was filled with strong role models for boys. Things were much more segregated then when it came to what was appropriate. Girls were supposed to care only about Barbie Dolls, cute boys at school, helping their mother with household chores, and dreaming of someday marrying and having children. I was lucky in that I had a mother who constantly repeated, "Joanna, you can do anything you put your mind to. You can be whatever you want when you grow up. If you choose it, you'll be able to do it." There's no substitute for a real role model, like Mom, but in fiction, Nancy Drew appeared to be the grown up version of the Joanna I wanted to be.

It wasn't just that she could solve mysteries. She was incredibly brave – always getting into things and going places that would frighten me to death, like slipping through trap doors in haunted houses, or facing up to bad men with plucky courage. There was never any violence in Nancy Drew. She did most of her work with her clever and cunning mind. But there was always the threat of harm just around the corner. And, man, those cliffhanger chapter endings got me every time!

She was also tolerant of people's differences. Her two best friends were Bess and George. Bess was always described as "pleasantly plump" and George was "a tomboy." George even had a guy's name (I thought that was weirdly cool when I was a kid, though I was happy my parents had given me a girl's name). Nancy cared about the people she helped, always volunteered her services at the drop of a hat, and was like a pit bull when chasing a mystery. She never quit until she'd solved it. Of course, had she quit it would've been a terrible book, but as a kid you don't think that way. You fret when she's in danger, worry that she won't find the answers, and wonder why someone would wear pumps on her feet (my only experience of a pump was the sump pump in the basement. Not practical for footwear).

Nancy Drew inspired generations of young girls into believing we were just as good as any boy when it came to all the sterling qualities she embodied. She's part of American mythology, an enduring character who still entertains today after more than 75 years.

Recently, some of her books have been reissued in their original form. I've been having a blast reading the re-issues – they're full of old-fashioned language, some unpleasant social situations (let's just say they're not "pc" – the 1930s were a different America), and filled to the brim with the adventures of Nancy Drew, Girl Sleuth.

Now, if only I could find that book-growing tree...

3 comments:

Madonna said...

Where is the Nancy Drew of today? Is anybody writing an updated version? Since you love these characters so much, have you thought about the kids fiction market? I think you would be a natural to write an updated Nancy Drew. One that is different from the precocious, overly sexual, jaded teen characters of today, yet intriguing, strong and feminist.

joanart_99 said...

My daughter is 8 and just getting into reading and has found the Nancy Drew mystery games for the pc. This spurred her into reading the books and at our local library we found a series that is written about Nancy as an 8 year old called Nancy Drew Notebooks and there is also a series called the Clue Crew. Her goal is to read through them all. I never made it through all of the original ones myself and may attempt that feat along with her!

Joanna Sandsmark said...

Thank you so much for telling me about your wonderful daughter! When I discovered Nancy Drew I couldn't get enough of her adventures. Re-reading them as an adult has been a lot of fun. I agree that you should take that journey with her. You'll have a blast! If nothing else, you'll have fun talking about the books together.

-- Joanna