Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Reading Influences: Nancy Drew

I was rather productive yesterday, doing everything on my to-do list and still having time to spare. Can I do it again today? I've already done a Target/grocery run.

Normally I talk about books on Tuesdays, but I'm in the middle of a very long book, and I'm not even sure I will end up talking about it, so I thought it would be fun to talk about books or series that have been big influences on me as a writer and as a person.

Recently, I've seen a lot of columns/essays/blog posts about women in fiction, or the lack thereof -- a father who made Bilbo female when reading The Hobbit to his daughter so there would be a girl in the story for her to relate to, a woman who realized as an adult that she'd let herself become a "manic pixie dream girl" because she didn't know she could be the hero of her own story, since fiction was always about men. These concepts were foreign to me. For one thing, while it's sometimes fun to have something I can relate to in a story (that seems to work best with comedy), I mostly read fiction to experience something that's different from my own life. And I can't imagine not realizing that you could be the hero of your own story. Then I figured out something that probably accounts for this: Nancy Drew.

The Nancy Drew books are by no means great works of fiction, but I think they had a huge influence on my life. I think I was in maybe third grade when I discovered these books accidentally. The TV series Bewitched was something of an obsession among the girls in my school (it was in weeknight syndication), and as a result, I would read any book with "witch" or "magic" in the title. I saw a book on the shelf called The Witch Tree Symbol and checked it out. It turned out to be about the Pennsylvania Dutch, not magic, but it was my introduction to Nancy Drew.

Nancy was very much the heroine of her own story. Yeah, she's a raging Mary Sue because she's good at everything, but if you're going to read about a Mary Sue, elementary school is the time to do it. Nancy was quite independent, traveling the world on her own or with her close friends, maybe occasionally with her dad. She solved crimes better than the local police force wherever she went. She could dance, sing, paint, play the bagpipes and escape from ropes. From her, I learned to make your captors drop their guard by going limp (which actually worked on the school playground when the bully mean girls ganged up on me) and how to hold your wrists when you're being tied up to make it easier to escape later.

I devoured these books, trying to read them in order (not that order mattered all that much). Even if I could guess the solution to the mystery, the real fun was in the adventure along the way. I preferred the older editions because I liked the 1930s-1950s illustrations. The 70s illustrations were just tacky. And I think because I absorbed so much Nancy Drew during a formative phase, I was able to not care whether or not there were girls in other books I read and it would never occur to me that I couldn't be a heroine in my own right. I've tried re-reading some of these books and can barely stomach them, so I just hold onto the way they made me feel when I was eight or nine.

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