Even as a very young child, I loved the feeling of being transported by a book. Not surprisingly, the Nancy Drew mysteries were among my favorites. I’ll never forget the day I discovered the series lined up on a shelf in the back of my third-grade classroom. The moment I opened the first volume, The Secret of the Old Clock, I was hooked. The books were pure entertainment as well as pure escapism, which was exactly what I needed since my childhood, while relatively privileged, was in many ways a lonely, even unhappy, one.
The fact that Nancy could do just about anything–from sewing to shooting to skiing–fired my imagination. She could even make certain repairs when necessary on her little blue roadster!
I identified with Nancy partly because my family, too, had a housekeeper. (Unlike Nancy’s, my own mother was in fact very much alive, although she spent long hours working as a pediatrician.) And as for my father? Suffice it to say that in temperament at least he in no way resembled Carson Drew, Nancy’s benevolent and doting father.
But just reading about Nancy and her exploits wasn’t enough. No, what I wanted was either to be a girl detective like Nancy or to write books similar to the ones I loved so much. In fact, not long after discovering the Nancy Drew books, I began thinking up mysteries of my own, which of course starred a young female detective. I would dictate my stories to my mother and then beg her to type them up. Mom would indulge me, although not often, since typing was one of the few things that she wasn’t extremely proficient at. But whenever she did I would stare at the pages for hours, fascinated by the words and sentences that I’d managed to think up all by myself. There were words of dialogue (yes, strangely enough, I already knew how to write dialogue by the age of eight) along with other words, words that conveyed action as well as description.
According to Wikipedia, the early Nancy Drew was an accomplished swimmer, oarsman and golfer, as well as a gourmet cook and bridge player. The only other female I knew with anything like as many skills and talents as Nancy was my mother, who, in addition to being a doctor, was an expert seamstress, cook and musician. (During college and medical school she’d also sailed and skied.) Had my mother been influenced by Nancy Drew? Quite possibly, although I don’t remember her ever saying anything about reading the Nancy Drew books back when she was a girl, although she could have since the books have been around since the 1930s.
And while I don’t believe I ever consciously realized it at the time Nancy was almost certainly the driving force behind my desire to pursue a wide variety of interests. Sometimes I wanted to be a singer like my aunt but then there were other times when I wanted to be a violinist like my grandmother. There were even times when I wanted to combine the two. (In second grade we were asked to draw what we wanted to be when we grew up and I drew a picture of myself in a floor-length evening gown singing in front of a microphone while also playing the violin.) I was multitasking, it seems, even then! And yet with the exception of writing, most of these other pursuits turned out to be little more than passing fancies. Writing, or at least the idea of writing, was the only thing that would ever completely capture my heart and mind.
A number of high-profile women, from Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor to presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton, have cited Nancy Drew as a major influence in their lives while others, including or perhaps especially those of a feminist bent, argue that the Nancy Drew image delivers a mixed message to young girls. A message that says not only that young women can but that they should be able to do it all with an almost unbelievable degree of proficiency.
Of course it’s great to aim high but still I can’t help wondering whether Nancy’s example might have caused who knows how many young women, including me, to set unrealistic goals for themselves. Unrealistic goals that can and often do lead to disappointment and even despair.
The message that women can and should be able to be and do and have it all almost certainly did not originate solely with Nancy Drew. There were other forces at play around the time she burst on the scene, including women themselves, many of whom were showing signs of wanting to get out of their homes and into the workplace.
And then of course there was the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s followed by the rise of domestic icons such as Martha Stewart who routinely projected an image of women not only doing it all but doing it all perfectly and effortlessly, which some have argued sends a hostile message to us seemingly “normal” women, who are definitely not capable of “doing it all” much less doing it all perfectly. (A more recent incarnation of the superwoman type might be Joanna Gaines of Fixer Upper fame, who effortlessly renovates houses in six weeks or less while always having freshly baked cookies on the kitchen table. Now that’s definitely a fantasy!)
Like countless other women, I love Nancy Drew and always will. But of all the things I love about her the thing I love the most is the fact that she fostered in me (as well as in countless others, I’m sure) not only a love of reading but also a love of writing, which I feel certain will stay with me for the rest of my life.