The nice-girl stereotype evolves

"My name is Nancy Drew. My friends tell me I'm always looking for trouble, but that's not really true. It just seems to have a way of finding me."

Meet America's favorite girl sleuth, circa 2004. She's back in town, in Simon & Schuster's newly launched "Nancy Drew Girl Detective" series, and this time she's talking directly to us, in the first person. Of course, Nancy has spoken to American women and girls from the moment she solved her first crime in "The Secret of the Old Clock" (1930). That the books have been written by a succession of writers under the pseudonym Carolyn Keene may be, more than anything else, the reason that Nancy has endured. Thanks to her various creators, and just like the rest of us, she's always changing.

In her earliest incarnation, Nancy was a fierce, occasionally gun-toting firebrand who didn't bother with a boyfriend. If she had to steal evidence at a crime scene, she did it with moral clarity - in a perfect frock. The character was written in those first years by a tough-minded University of Iowa graduate named Mildred Wirt Benson, who went on to be a journalist and a pilot. She worked from outlines provided by Edward Stratemeyer, who'd cooked up the idea of Nancy in the late 1920s.

Nancy was beautiful, popular, and smart. She also had qualities Benson specifically admired - she was preternaturally mature, extremely sensible, very good at sports, and didn't take guff from anyone. She was absolutely of her era in prejudices, language, interests, and appearance, with the exception that she, like Benson, knew how to get what she wanted.

When Stratemeyer died in 1930, his two daughters took over the job of writing Nancy Drew outlines. His elder daughter, Harriet Adams, became especially invested in Nancy Drew. She was the product of her well-to-do East Coast family, educated at Wellesley and the mother of four. Though she had wanted to work, the social mores of her class and time prevented her from doing so. Her father's death, though devastating to her, gave her the opportunity to fulfill her dream.

Under her watch, Nancy began to change. She acquired a long-suffering boyfriend, Ned Nickerson. She stopped talking back. She treated her housekeeper, Hannah Gruen, like a member of the family instead of mere hired help, and was less apt to use complicated words.

By "The Mystery of the Brassbound Trunk" (1940), she had even learned a thing or two about feminine wiles, using them on Ned to get her car fixed ("You know just what needs to be done and I don't," she pleads kittenishly), whereas she once would have gotten out the jack herself - or at least called the tow truck. Benson was still writing the books, but little by little Adams was recalibrating Nancy: She was less Midwestern upstart and more Wellesley girl with every passing year.

In the late '50s and '60s, Nancy evolved yet again - this time in response to the changing world around her. Racial stereotypes, including black characters who spoke in Southern slave-era dialect, had to be excised, along with clothing styles, appliances, and any number of other things that dated the series. Nancy and her pals, flighty Bess and tomboy George, began to wear pants and stopped talking about the running boards of cars. But still, the books remained ageless, existing in a universe untouched by World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the psychedelic '60s, and the women's lib movement.

Simon & Schuster's new Nancy, on the other hand, is nothing if not a profoundly 21st century gal. She has a cellphone and knows about American Indian ancestral burial grounds and GPS systems. She's deeply in touch with her feelings; regarding the death of her mother when she was 3, a subject always noted but never dwelled on in the past, she confides in us: "That's been hard to deal with sometimes."

Her trademark blue car is still in evidence, but it has a newfangled twist. She appears on a deserted road to rescue Ned from a bike wreck and he dubs her, with a flourish typical of the new Ned, "an angel driving her blue hybrid."

Notice, she rescues him. Some of Benson's Nancy is back in these new volumes, and she still has Adams's humanism too. As always, she's a girl who sets an example worth following; a girl who makes you feel that in any challenging situation, you'd turn to your own pals and say, as her friend George does in the middle of a difficult new case: "We'll just go out there and ask ourselves, 'What would Nancy Drew do?' "

Melanie Rehak, a poet and critic, is working on a book about the original author and publisher of the Nancy Drew Mystery Series. This commentary originally appeared in The Los Angeles Times. ©2004 The Los Angeles Times.

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