Reviewed by L.D.Y.
Hardcover (available in trade), 364 pages, 2005
Reason for Reading: I had no idea until I saw this book that Carolyn Keene was a pseudonym, so curiosity made me pick up Girl Sleuth to see who was behind a series I often read when I was younger.
Synopsis: While the name ‘Carolyn Keene’ is synonymous with mysteries and Nancy Drew to millions of people, females especially, there is no Carolyn Keene, and there never was. Instead, journey with Rehak into the worlds of Harriet Stratemeyer Adams and Mildred Wirt Benson, the women that began writing the smash hit series seventy-five years ago. Through careful guidance, fiery competition, and exuberant-if-not-fantastic writing, these women molded Nancy Drew not just into a detective, but a cultural icon that symbolized female independence to generation after generation of young readers.
Why you should read this book: If you read Nancy Drew during your childhood but have doubts that it made enough of an impression for you to want to read an entire book about her creators, think again. While the plots may have faded away with the years, as Rehak points out, the actual character of Nancy Drew is quick to return to memory in reading just a few short sentences – bringing with it a flood of no-doubt pleasant memories. Rehak doesn’t force any grand connections or deep meaning between Nancy and her impact on millions of people, because she doesn’t need to – she deftly sticks to letting Harriet and Mildred tell their own fascinating stories. There’s Harriet’s childhood with her media mogul father (who came up with the original idea of Nancy Drew), Mildred’s stories of school days that brought longing for the sort of life Nancy was able to live, right up to Harriet’s constant battle to keep Nancy’s world safely encased in a bubble without sex, drugs, or any other problems that might have plagued a different 18-year-old heroine. Girl Sleuth is packed with interesting tidbits about the personal lives of Nancy Drew’s creators, as well as reactions to Nancy: both hated and heralded by feminists, beloved but occasionally disappointing to millions of young readers, Nancy Drew shows no signs of slowing down despite the passage of 75 years, and Girl Sleuth captures all of this turbulence and mystery behind the famous girl detective perfectly.
Why you should avoid this book: Rehak has a tendency to spend a shade too much time relaying very general history, that, while interesting, doesn’t have enough to do with Nancy Drew or her creators to justify inclusion in the book. Instead, it might have been more interesting to include more personal information: how, for example, Harriet held her family together while pumping out books at such a prodigious rate, never mind while running a publishing company in a time when it was almost unheard of for a woman to do such a thing.
Grab your magnifying glass, because this is a mystery story. At first glance, its star is a girl detective, a legendary foiler of plots and teen avatar of justice. But, really, the mystery lies beyond the realm of her adventures. It’s in the story of how she came to be an American icon and why she’s stayed one for decades. It’s in the lives of the man who dreamed her up and the women who shepherded her into existence and molded her character. Most of all, it’s in the long-buried secret behind the identity of Carolyn Keene, the woman who has kept generations of little girls sneaking a flashlight under the covers after bedtime to finish reading just one more chapter of a Nancy Drew Mystery Story.
The combination of Stratemeyer’s outline and editing with Mildred’s efforts had produced a fantasy girl with a few touches of the real – possibly touches of Mildred, who had added some of Nancy’s bolder moves and snappier dialogue to Stratemeyer’s outline. Together, they had created a star, and Stratemeyer knew it.
The writer of this letter was none other than ‘Secretary to Miss Carolyn Keene.’ The absurdity of posing as the assistant to a pseudonym, and then having that assistant explain that her boss was not a real person, did not seem to occur to Harriet, who had Agnes Pearson type up the little masterpiece and send it out.
Also recommended: Mistress Bradstreet by Charlotte Gordon; Virginia Woolf by Nigel Nicolson; Cover Her Face by P.D. James.
Also by this author: Girl Sleuth is Rehak’s first book.
Fun tidbit: The names originally suggested for the heroine of the Nancy Drew series were Stella Strong, Diana Drew, Diana Dare, Nan Nelson, Nan Drew, or Helen Hale.
Would I read more by this author? This one held my attention the whole way through, so yes.
Â© Lisa Yanaky 2003-2007