Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Nancy Drew Revealed

Had coffee with my friend, Clare, the other day. She talked about her daughter, Elizabeth, who goes by E, and who loves to read. Loves it. They can't keep enough books in the house for E to read. Consequently, Clare is always casting about for new books to bring home. E is just 8 but reads at a much higher level. I wondered aloud if it weren't time to introduce Nancy Drew mysteries. What a treat that would be, to read your first Nancy Drew mystery again.

"We tried that," said Clare. "Too boring."

I must have expressed my astonishment more forcefully than intended, because she looked up from her coffee and gave me a tight nod. "It's true," she said. "Nothing happens in those books for pages and pages. It's frustrating."

"I loved her," I said. I did. I have the clearest memories of the yellow hardback covers, of going to the bookstore to pick out a new one on whatever special occasion, a birthday or a Christmas or something. I remember reading them in bed, in the back seat of the car on the way to the mall while eating these little candy raspberries. My parents were forever going to the mall. They shopped as a hobby. I hated the mall. Still do.

But more than that, I remember how they offered escape. Nancy Drew appeared in my life when I was E's age, maybe a little older, right after my parents had set off a series of grenades in our lives. They'd divorced, moved, taken on all-consuming careers. They feuded with each other without speaking, and expected their children to help them hate each other. They drank lots and were having sex with just God knows who. It was the 70s, a time when adults who'd been married during the summer of love took the chance to loop back and catch up on all the fun. But not Nancy Drew. She still lived in the 50s, with her tasteful pumps and sensible bob. She drove a convertible and figured things out. Important things for which adults were grateful. I explained all this to Clare, how Nancy worked in her father's law firm and had this boyfriend, Ted.

"Ned," said Clare. 
"Ned?" Like it mattered. "The point is, he adored her and stayed out of her way. Two sterling qualities in a boyfriend."
Clare was nodding. "Boring," she said.

Perhaps that was the allure. I needed gentle little adventures starring a plucky girl, nothing like me, who figures things out and who only has to deal with one kind of creepiness, the darkened back stairs with cobwebs and whatnot, rather than relatives with wandering hands and all the other kinds of creepiness so prevalent in the 70s.

Nancy Drew was a placeholder for me, a reliable story type in which to escape. I went from her to Ray Bradbury (not so big a leap as it sounds) to what? Other science fiction, some fantasy. But who were the names? Then folk tales by the thousands. Then what? A quick tour of the genres, romance, mystery. Which ones? Then best-sellers. Then literary fiction. 

THE EXERCISE: Perform a reader's archaeology. Walk yourself through the authors and titles that took you through adolescence and into adulthood. Who made you a reader, and what roles did these books play in your life, in your imagination?

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