you ever read a book that made you want to start a conversation
with the author? You know, when you want to jump out of bed
where you've been reading propped up on a goose down pillow,
forgetting to take care not to knock over your reading lamp,
run to the phone and say,
"You reminded me of the time…"
You know chatting, as if you were good buddies with the author
and they'd be ever-so-pleased to hear you tell your story?
That's what happened to me (over and over again) as I read
Rereadings, edited by Anne Fadiman for Farrar Straus
This column isn't long enough to accost all seventeen of
Fadiman's essayists, so I choose you, Katherine Ashenburg,
because I am passionate about any discrimination and that
includes inequities against women and girls and that includes
women authors and girl protagonists. I also choose you because
I doubt there is a single MyShelf reader of the feminine persuasion
(at least from my era) who didn't devour the Nancy Drew mysteries.
And, because many women who came after me may be utterly and
hopelessly lacking a stalwart role model in literature like
Nancy. Harry Potter's sidekick, Hermione, is--after all--only
So, Katherine, you preferred the Sue
Barton books and seemed grateful to your librarian
for disparaging Nancy
Drew books because "They don't have enough literary
merit." She may have been right and you may be right
to agree with her. I can't speak to the literary merit of
works I read as a child. All I wanted then was the pure joy
of reading, of turning those pages, smelling that printers
ink, getting high on the fact that I could read a Nancy
Drew in a single hot August day and go back and fill my
bike's basket with ten or twenty more exciting mysteries with
Nancy in every one of them. Literary merit? Pshaw. I didn't
give a hoot about literary merit until I read Shakespeare
and that first bout with him ruined the reading of romances
and mysteries for the rest of my life. Still, I'm happy to
have had that light-hearted experience of just reading without
caring a whit about anything else.
But literary merit is not at the crux of what I wanted to
tell you. Rather I wanted to let you know that I share the
remorse you feel when you open a library book deprived of
those lovely little time-yellowed pockets for hand stamped
cards (the more crooked and colorful the better). I wanted
to tell you that I too had a favorite reading chair in my
bedroom, upholstered chartreuse -- I suppose to cheer up the
gray days of Utah's winters. I wanted to tell you that I had
a knack for ignoring my mother's call to dishwashing duties
and had her convinced that it was because I was so deeply
immersed in whatever it was I was reading. I wanted to ask
you if you did that, too.
But mostly I want you to know I am mad at you--and that librarian.
Putting aside literary -- which I now agree should
count for something -- I want you to know Nancy Drew was a
better role model for a girl in my generation than your Sue
Barton. I grew up, you see, being told:
"You can't be a nurse. Your ankles aren't strong enough."
"Be a teacher. You'll be home with your children when
they return from school."
Worse still, I grew up not even realizing that it was possible
to "be a doctor." Not because women doctors didn't
exist. It's just that I never saw one. And, no matter how
much present day nurses may object to this (and who can blame
them), nurses were perceived as subordinates to MDs, nurse
practitioners had not come into their own and midwives had
long ago faded into the annals of early American lore. I knew
no women -- nurses or otherwise -- who held Ph. Ds or any
other degree equivalent to a doctor's and there I was, needing
She was a girl who went against all odds. No one could tell
her she couldn't. She wasn't afraid to do the scariest things
and she didn't need a man or boy (father, brother, companion
or otherwise) to do them for her or with her.
I'm glad that Sue inspired you and I'm glad that in your
rereading, you picked up on so many prejudices of
the day including what might have been a code for gay.
I just wanted to encourage you -- woman to woman, author to
author, and reader to reader -- to go back and take a sip
of what Nancy offered. No, I didn't turn out to be a P.I.
or a coroner but I'll tell you, my life may have been different
If you decide to revisit Nancy, let me know. Maybe you'll
write another essay for the American Scholar and,
if so, I'd love to see it. If you should decide to do that,
I promise to go back and reread Sue
Barton. Then we can compare notes.