Friday, February 20, 2015

the real nancy drew

I'm a sucker for re-reading things from my youth. That's why I re-encountered The Cat Who series in 2014 and why I almost started reading my old Goosebumps books this year. (It could still happen.) But the series I was most into was Nancy Drew. I had a numbered list and I would write down each book as I read it. You know: The Haunted Bridge next to #15 or Silver Cobweb next to #71. [Side note, I hated the contemporary 80s/90s Nancy Drew covers when I was reading age. I always gravitated toward the oldest looking books. Not that I had a lot of choice in our small libraries, but I didn't realize it at the time. Now, perusing the interwebs, I definitely recognize the ones I felt most strongly about were all older or looked older. Huh!]

Here's the post that I originally wrote about re-reading my childhood obsession in 2009. 
In my happy fervor of not having a lot of work, I finished all but one of the books Kristin and I have on our book queue. I read The Clue in the Old Stagecoach first, followed by the very first Nancy Drew story, The Secret of the Old Clock. 

Naturally I poked fun at the language-- George's exclamations of "Hypers!" was too much like Velma's "Jinkies." But, hey, it's a childhood favorite I couldn't totally hate on it. Nancy's totally hot, all the guys dig her, and the girls want to be her friends. In fact, I see a lot of other famous characters in the Nancy Drew series. Nancy and Ned are pretty much Barbie and Ken, and Nancy, George, and Bess are human forms of Britney, Jeanette, and Eleanor (The Chipettes, duh). Personally, the most entertaining part of the book was when my roommate picked it up and pointed out that Nancy enjoyed "dating" Rick while they were on vacation. "What about Ned?!?" she had cried. And it's true. As I read, I wondered the same thing. But, I wasn't alone. When Ned and his two chums (one who dated George and the other who was "a special friend" to Bess) wrote to say they were coming to visit, George asked Nancy what she would do about Rick and Ned. Nancy replied that some things just work themselves out. She was right. As fate would have it, Rick hastily had to leave the resort because his mother was sick. 

But my copy of The Secret of the Old Clock proved to be a doozie of a read. I can remember reading it both when I was little, and again in high school when I went through a nostalgic phase. The book I snagged at the library this time around looked old, but this was actually an exceptional copy. Despite never reading the forward or introduction to any book, I was curious as to why something so mundane as a children's series needed it. Reading through, I discovered that in 1959 the Nancy Drew series was revamped. This book, the first in the series, was published in 1930. While it didn't strike me as odd at the time, there have been a lot of changes since then, including women's rights movements and the civil rights movements. So, in 1959 they took every book written until then and modernized it. This included making Nancy 18 instead of 16, her mother dying when Nancy was older rather than very young, giving her a golden hair a new style (no longer the bob), and updating her car from a blue roadster to a blue convertible, and she drove on highways now and not main gravel roads. What this book did was turn back to the longer, and politically incorrect, version which was published in 1930.

I had a million reactions to this book and I wish that I had access to the revamped version, to see how different they were. Indeed without the reference of the newer text, it is painfully clear that is novel is out of date. The first is that when talking to her dad, Carson, she calls him "Father" incessantly. In the newer books she calls him dad. Another tell-tale sign of the old era is the phrase: "Like a true daughter of the Middle West, Nancy Drew took pride in the fertility of her State and saw beauty in a crop of waving green corn as well as the rolling hills and the expanse of prairie land." What the hell? First of all, it's the midst of the Great Depression and the era of the Dust Bowl. Reality check? (side note: I hate that Nancy spends her time galavanting around spending money and pitying poor people during the Depression.)  And no one in their right mind would write something like that nowadays anyway. In fact, my previous view of Nancy was certainly not "Middle West" minded. Typical of the sexual inequality of the period as well, one of the officers tells Nancy, "Not many girls would have used their brains the way you did." Also, unlike the Nancy of my day, this one is the head of the household, ordering the menu and food for dinner, and leaving Hanna as just a member of the household staff. 

The best part, or well, perhaps the most interesting of the cultural divide, is the racism. The forward mentioned it but until half way through, it never appeared. Then, as Nancy is planning to break into someone else's house, the "Negro caretaker" or "colored man" pops into the picture. HA. Nancy Drew is not only classist (which is evident in her shopping scenes) but she's a racist, too! The "Negro caretaker" is an alcoholic with a bunch of kids and he hates his job. He calls Nancy "White girl" and his conversations with Nancy are reminiscent of this particularly stereotypical dialect: "Ole Jeff done gone and made a fool of himself" and "...dis is my favorite jail." Need I say more. 

Clearly, for the benefit of today's world, the great Nancy Drew change of 1959 was needed. However, as the introduction points out, it's very interesting, from a cultural evolution standpoint, to remember our roots and where things begin. Thank you, Applewood Books, for bringing it back in 1991. 


  1. WOW. Now I want THIS version! Too bad we can't book swap. That "Middle West" quote is classic. I don't think you'll catch too many (read, zero) 18 (or, I suppose 16...I wonder why the choice was made to change her age to 18, by the way?) girls being proud of the fertility of their state.

    Absolutely none of this racism was present in my edition. Smart choice, for sure, but I bet that it made your version the "better" one to read (from a critical/21st century mocking standpoint).

    Also, when do you think all publishers started getting rid of the token "colored person" dialect? SO distracting! It drives me insane.

  2. It is really distracting! It's also interesting that they got rid of that kind of writing only in books where it somehow wasn't "important." For instance, I don't think they took racist language or stereotypical dialects out of Huck Finn, right? Where do they draw the line? And I wonder how many older books have been revamped (unknown to us, at least, since we were born far after the changes).