'The Secret of the Enduring Role Model: A Nancy Drew Mystery'

For those of us who still have childhood copies of a Nancy Drew mystery or two tucked away in the attic, news of the death last week of Nancy's creator, Mildred Wirt Benson, unleashed a flood of memories about the intrepid teenage detective.

For Maria Winter, those memories even form part of her career. As manager of the Hidden Staircase bookstore and gift shop in this quiet town west of Milwaukee – the only Nancy Drew-oriented bookstore in the United States – she oversees an ever-changing stock of 600 Nancy Drew books. They range from new copies with glossy covers to vintage editions selling for $300 to $400.

Even that isn't the top price, though. "If you had the first edition of the first book in the series, you're probably talking $5,000," says Peter Wilson, an owner of the six-year-old business. The shop is named after the second book in the Nancy Drew series. It's also located in a dark-green clapboard building that just happens to have an out-of-sight staircase.

It's all enough to spark gasps of recognition when new customers see titles lined up on the dark wood shelves: "The Clue in the Diary," "The Secret in the Old Attic," "The Whispering Statue."

In recent days, some customers have also gasped in surprise for another reason: After Mrs. Benson's death, they learned for the first time that she was the real author of many of the titles. The byline Carolyn Keene is only a pseudonym.

"A lot of people who come in have no idea that there is no Carolyn Keene," Mrs. Winter says.

The Nancy Drew books, which date back to the 1930s, form part of a genre of series for girls that continued into the 1940s, '50s, and beyond. Other series starred stewardess Vicki Barr, reporter Beverly Gray, and student nurse Cherry Ames.

"Role model" has become an overworked phrase in recent years, and perhaps fictional characters don't even qualify. After all, most Nancy Drew readers never said, "I want to be a detective when I grow up." Still, the independence and courage these heroines displayed left their mark on readers.

Today, Winter says, women flight attendants and pilots come into the shop, point to the Vicki Barr books, and say proudly, "This is what made me want to do what I do."

"These series really had an effect," Winter continues. "They're not intellectual, but they gave girls the idea that they could do other things. They had choices and options and adventures."

By today's standards, Winter concedes, Nancy Drew "might be a little slow, a little sweet compared to what girls are used to now." Sometimes, she and her husband and Mr. Wilson speculate about Nancy Drew's future. "Is she eventually going to go out of print and fade into the woodwork?"

For now, the future looks promising enough. The first book in the series, "The Secret of the Old Clock," is even being released as an audiobook.

The books of childhood – some of them, at least – exert a far more lasting and profound influence than young readers can imagine. Decades later, we may still remember the exact shelf in the library where favorite titles stood. We can visualize the spines lined up like martinets, the color of the bindings, and perhaps even the illustrations.

Most of all, of course, we recall the delicious pleasure of curling up in a chair and losing ourselves in the adventures of a fictional character like Nancy Drew.

"She was spunky," Winter says. "She showed that you could be clever and pretty and smart, all at the same time."

As for Benson, she remains an impressive role model, too. The day she died, at 96, she was still working at her desk at The Toledo (Ohio) Blade, where she wrote a monthly column for seniors.

Talk about spunky! Nancy Drew would surely like that kind of fortitude and enduring spirit.

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