Nancy Drew: Patron Saint of Stubborn Women

The first Nancy Drew book that I ever read was The Witch Tree Symbol. My mother had read it to me, actually, her hands flipping the pages of the iconic yellow and blue novel. I had been so enraptured that books like The Secret of the Old Clock and The Mystery of Lilac Inn were natural successors, which later transitioned to modernized paperbacks with glossy covers of fast-moving cars and fractions of a face, thoroughly updated.

The Witch Tree Symbol was not one of my favorites. The plot had seemed forced together, establishing an ending that seemed overly simplified. What the book accomplished, however, was Nancy Drew. 

You don’t often stumble upon a character like her. She acted as the Patron Saint of Stubborn Women, thoroughly unraveling detailed plots with her keen intellect and moral compass. Even in scenes of danger, she has a flashlight out and was already flipping her way through Morse code signals, finding agency even in the grimmest of situations.

Mildred Wirt Benson (University of Iowa Press)

Mildred Wirt Benson (University of Iowa Press)

When I was younger, I had haunted the Carolyn Keene section of books that dominated the children’s area of a bookstore in Ottawa. I had always read ravenously, and living in the country turned the prospect of a city bookstore into a fascinating realm of stretched shelves so full that it would have been impossible to look at each one. Collecting as many novels stamped with her name as I could, I even ventured into the realm of video games to play the HeR Interactive point-and-click mysteries that managed to wrap together iconic plots with timeless historical details.

I also managed to read the stories in a variety of different ways, be it with my mother at night, or in school, where I would tug one of the yellow books out of my desk during class, balancing it delicately on my lap to chance upon reading a few of the pages before being caught. It was a routine obsession that saw me grappling for an opportunity to linger a while longer, reading with one hand while brushing my teeth with the other.

What I had liked about Nancy Drew was that she was stubborn, and she knew what she wanted. Most heroines in that genre were flimsy, trapped in boring domesticated plots that prominently featured male relationships, anchoring them down with exhausting feminine stereotypes.

Thankfully, Carolyn Keene had managed to buck the trend in favor of stubborn girls. Or, should I say, Mildred Benson and Harriet Adams. 

Despite the fact that I had read the same books my mother had when she was a child, it never crossed my mind that Keene was awfully determined to keep churning out an obscene number of books over the years. It wasn’t until the summer before my final year of university that I stumbled upon Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her at a used bookstore. I had nearly walked past the table of jumbled up novels, arms tight around my selected haul, when my roommate pulled it free, holding it to me. 

Detailing a rich and thorough history of the making of Nancy Drew, Melanie Rehak managed to pull me back into this piece of my childhood. The author dove into the details over the founder of Stratemeyer Syndicate,  Edward Stratemeyer, and his role in establishing a massive assortment of affordable children stories written by ghostwriters, as well as his hiring of Mildred Benson. Benson had been fresh to the writing market and was tasked with the job of ghostwriting the first three Nancy Drew novels-The Secret of the Old Clock, The Hidden Staircase, and The Bungalow Mystery

The very first novel had been published in 1930, and after the third novel, Stratemeyer died of lobar pneumonia. Leaving the company in care of his two surviving daughters. Harriet Adams swiftly took over the brunt of the work, skillfully balancing both motherhood and running a massive publishing house. As a businesswoman during the 1930’s, Adams had to combat both gendered and economic roadblocks, right before being hit with The Great Depression. This economic turbulence demanded changes to Stratemeyer Syndicate in forms of cheaper materials and lower wages for writers and workers. 

Despite all of this, Adams was interested in the survival of the company her father had founded himself. Benson remained on contract, writing numerous novels in the Nancy Drew series, while also leaning into other series under the publishing house, like Dana Girls and Penny Parker. Events like World War Two existed as mere exclamation marks for the women, completely involved in maintaining a massive reader base.

For years, the both women were able to unite their efforts, with Adams creating basic story points and structure, and Benson writing everything in between.

Bonita Granville with Larry Williams, left, and Frankie Thomas in the 1939 film “Nancy Drew, Reporter.”

Bonita Granville with Larry Williams, left, and Frankie Thomas in the 1939 film “Nancy Drew, Reporter.”

Nancy Drew had been designed by strong women. Acting as a modernized Robin Hood in a blue roadster, she is able to stumble upon an assortment of danger, while restoring justice to the poor and defenseless. Her moral compass is what pushes her motivations, while matched with an assortment of skills like lock-picking and Morse code. Her character is a rarity, acting as the anti-damsel in distress. 

Both Benson and Adams eventually locked themselves into a custody war over the property of Nancy Drew in 1980, having led fruitful careers in journalism and business, as Adams’ previous company Grosset & Dunlap filed a suit against her. Claiming a breach of contract, Adams was forced to fight to bring her work to Simon & Schuster.

Benson acted as a witness that later contradicted much of Adam’s testimony, which brought up confusion over who was responsible for inventing the complex character. However, the courts eventually ruled in favor of split ownership. This allowed for Adams to continue writing the series under her new publishing house, and Grosset & Dunlap were given rights to previously written and published material.

Over the decades, Nancy Drew has been brought to life again and again. Through cinema in 1938, a series of four movies were released, later followed in 2007 and 2019 by solo movies. Lani Minella loaned Nancy Drew her own voice, allowing her to come to life in a series of video games (with fans still waiting for the next installment in the franchise). There’s something special about her character that makes us so willing to resurrect her in so many different forms, even if a locked door is standing in her way. 


Rachel Small

Rachel Small is not a small person and might be the present day reincarnation of Lizzie Borden. She crawled to life one night after midnight in the basement of a bookstore before taking on the role as a fashion blogger before taking on the role as a fashion blogger.

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