Monday, February 25, 2008

Be Nancy Drew

I braved the library to revisit my old friend Nancy. What a surprise this was, for reasons I didn't anticipate.
The first chapter of the very first mystery begins with Nancy driving along the road. In this long, long series of stories, we meet Nancy for the first time thusly:

Nancy Drew, an attractive girl of eighteen, was driving home along a country road in her new, dark-blue convertible. She had just delivered some legal papers for her father.
"It was sweet of Dad to give me this car for my birthday," she thought. "And it's fun to help him in his work." 
Her father, Carson Drew, a well-known lawyer in their home town of River heights, frequently discussed puzzling aspects of cases with his blond, blue-eyed daughter.
Smiling, Nancy said to herself, "Dad depends on my intuition."

OK. So, this is quite light and sweet, a bit too sweet. Not only are there no foundling dragon eggs or young boy wizards waiting to find their secret heritage, there's no drama at all. Until, "an instant later" Nancy gasps in horror as a girl runs in front of a moving van. Over the next few pages we find that the girl is unhurt; that she is an orphan cared for by kindly great-aunts; that the aunts were swindled by the moving van guys, who stole their furniture, including a favorite old clock; and that the great-aunts were also swindled by a lawyer representing the estate of someone who was to leave them lots of money to help care for the girl. And we learn that the lawyer in question is the father of two girls at school who haven't been very nice to Nancy in the past. Too much coincidence in eight pages? Not if you're ten years old. Also, we learn that there is a missing will. Get it? The will that would give the money to the nice old ladies is missing. Given that the title of the book is The Secret of the Old Clock--wink, wink--I'm pretty sure I know where the will is, even though I haven't read this book in thirty years. And that's everything up to page 8.

More surprising still, were the sudden shifts of point of view (these were written by underpaid ghostwriters, not MFA candidates). Also, throughout each story Nancy is treated like a prom queen who can do no wrong, and who lives an a haze of sparkling earnestness that would shame a 1950s sit com writer. The fact that they employ a loving and emotionally fulfilled housekeeper named Hannah is just the beginning.  A longish example, beginning of chapter three:

"What are your plans for this morning, Nancy?" her father asked at the breakfast table.
"I thought I'd do a little shopping," she replied. Her eyes twinkled. "There's a dance coming up at the country club and I'd like to get a new dress."
"Then will you phone me about lunch? Or better still, how about eating with me, whether Mr. Rolsted comes or not?"
"I'll be there!" Nancy declared gaily.
"All right. Drop in at my office about twelve thirty. If Mr. Rolsted does accept my invitation, we'll try to find out something about Josiah Crowley's wills." Mr. Drew pushed back his chair. "I must hurry now or I'll be late getting downtown."
After her father had left, Nancy finished her breakfast, then went to the kitchen to help Hannah Gruen, who had already left the table.
"Any errands for me? Nancy asked.
"Yes, dear. Here's a list," the housekeeper replied. "And good luck with your detective work."
Hannah Gruen gazed at the girl affectionately and several thoughts raced through her mind. In school Nancy had been very popular and had made many friends. But through no fault of her own she had made to enemies, Ada and Isabel Topham. This worried Hannah. The sisters, intensely jealous of Nancy, had tried to discredit her in positions she had held in school. But loyal friends had always sprung to Nancy's defense. As a result, Ada and Isabel had become more unpleasant than ever to Nancy.
OK. Has anyone ever declared anything gaily? Not me. The stew of ingredients here is just intoxicating. We have a mother figure, who indulges but never mothers (in a frenzy of rage-aholic, peri-menopausal narcissism) because she's not a mother. And yet she knows every nuance of Nancy's social life. We have an indulgent dad who encourages her to visit his office and help him (without being imperious, distracted or oversexed). Is there a nicer, less threatening guy on the planet? We have a girl who drives a new convertible, gift from said dad, and shops at will, and who is popular in school, has no social concerns except that two unfair girls did something vaguely wrong to her, but no matter, because she was rescued by admiring friends. I mean, to troubled little girl readers everywhere, this must once have been literary crack cocaine. I know it was for me. Nancy was a little placeholder in our imaginations before Jane Eyre came along and showed us our rage.

THE EXERCISE: Declare something gaily today. No. Just kidding. Let us step inside this haze of earnest living and find out how hard it is to pull off. Rewrite a scene from a story, a memoir, or just from life. In this snippet--just a couple hundred words if it hurts too much--the protagonist can do no wrong. Everyone must be excruciatingly polite to everyone else. Blandness rules conversations. Then at one point, you shift perspective. Another character must tilt his or her head and look deeply and compassionately into the heart of the protagonist and care. Sounds funny, right? Try it.

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