by author Nancy Pickard
[su_note note_color=”#cfe2ff”]The award-winning author of the Jenny Cain mysteries pays tribute to “our bright heroine” as she first appeared in 1930 in The Hidden Staircase.[/su_note]
When I was ten years old, I wrote: “I will be happy if I can have horses, solve mysteries, help people, and be happily married.” In that order. For thirty years after that, I forgot on any conscious level about that wish list. When I finally came across it again, I was forty years old, married to a cowboy, doing volunteer work, and writing murder mysteries.
The child was, indeed, the mother to this woman.
It’s easy enough to figure out why I wanted to “have horses” — doesn’t almost every adolescent girl dream of riding Black Beauty? Growing up in the fifties made it de rigueur for me to want to “be happily married,” and being a college student in the sixties made it nearly obligatory for me to want to “help people.” But whence the desire to “solve mysteries”?
That’s easy, isn’t it?
I read Nancy Drew. Didn’t you?
Sometimes I think I owe it all to her — my career, my amateur sleuth heroine, most of whatever finer qualities I may possess, even my blond hair, blue eyes , and my name. Nancy Drew was (almost) everything I wanted to be when I grew up: intelligent, self-confident, incredibly courageous, honest, straightforward, kind, courteous, energetic, successful, and independent. I confess that I also wished I were well-to-do and beautiful, just like Nancy. Granted, it’s possible that she could have used more of a sense of fun and humor, and it cannot be denied that in her language and attitudes she reflected the white, middle-class, Christian prejudices of her day, but I’d rather blame those failing on her creators. I like to think that had Nancy but known, she never would have thought, spoken, or behaved in those ways.
Recently, for the first time since I was a girl I read the original version of The Hidden Staircase. First published in 1930, it may be the most famous and the most fondly remembered of any of the Nancy Drew mysteries. In 1959 the story was republished in a rewritten edition that drastically altered both the plot and the characters. If I had a daughter, the original version is the one I’d want to pass on to her. It is the edition I will give to my son.
I think it is not overstating the case to maintain that the original Nancy Drew is a mythic character in the psyches of the American women who followed her adventures as they were growing up. She may have been Superman, Batman, and Green Hornet, all wrapped up in a pretty girl in a blue convertible.
The original Hidden Staircase is a rich and nutritious feast of psychological archetypes, so that it assumes the quality of fairy tale and myth. Nancy herself, in the original version, is quite a heroic figure, one that in our culture we’re more accustomed to seeing portrayed as a boy than as a girl: she’s incorruptibly honest, steadfast, and courageous, a veritable Sir Lancelot of a girl, off on a quest to rescue the fair maiden, who is in this case her father, and to recapture the holy grail, which is in this case a silver spoon, a pocketbook, a diamond pin, and a couple of black silk dresses.
We’d have to go back to ancient goddess mythology to find an equivalent female of such heroic stature, back to a figure such as Inanna, who was the chief Sumerian deity, a woman who went to hell and back on a rescue mission. Such journeys into the “underground” are viewed in psychological terms as descents into one’s unconscious; it is believed that a person must bring the contents of the unconscious into the light of consciousness in order to fully integrate one’s psyche. In The Hidden Staircase, Nancy symbolically does just that, by tumbling like Alice down a black hole and then by journeying deeper and deeper in a really quite frightening tunnel where she perseveres with remarkable courage until she finds a way to ascend once more into the light. In so doing, she solves all mysteries and reunites everyone and everything that have been wrongfully separated. This is, at heart, no “mere” adventure story; this is myth.
In the original story, Nancy works alone, facing every terror on her own, although with the support, encouragement, and appreciation of the grown-ups. It reminds me of mythic initiation rites, where the young person is challenged, with the full backing of the adults, to prove herself. Nancy’s father, in the original version, is an ideally archetypal figure who approves of everything his daughter does and praises her unstintingly. He’s so proud of her he could bust, as proud as fathers are said to be when their sons make the winning touchdown in a football game, as proud as Zeus was of Athena. In the original version, Nancy is a marvel of decisiveness and resolution, and she gets to experience a full personal triumph.
Do you remember how you felt when you read the story?
I remember exactly how it was for me…
I was scared and had gooseflesh, and my stomach clenched, and the hair on my arms stood on end, and I tucked my feet beneath me so the boogieman under the bed couldn’t grab them, and when Nancy was in the tunnel I could hardly bear to turn the page for fear of what might happen next, and yet I couldn’t help turning the page to see what happened next. Oh, it was wonderful! It was delicious. It was spooky and mysterious and creepy, and I was there falling down those stairs with her, praying the flashlight wouldn’t go out, feeling my way along the dark, damp walls of the tunnel, almost plunging through the wood where the stair was missing, breathing a sigh of vast relief when Nancy pulled the iron ring and the other door opened…
All of that is still there.
The faults are still there, the racism and antisemitism — and they make for painful reading now, just as they did for their victims back then. I hope they’ll inspire us to examine our own “historical context” for the prejudices we don’t know we have.
Do you want to know the truth? I miss her.
I miss the sheer joy of reading a Nancy Drew.
Evidently millions of other women do, too, because they’re turning in record numbers to read the new breed of adult fictional women sleuths whose undeniable progenitor is Nancy Drew. It is surely no coincidence that my own detective, Jenny Cain, has a name that matched Nancy’s syllable for syllable, and that she’s slim, blond, and blue-eyed, too. My Jenny is as good as motherless, like Nancy, and she’s smarter, braver, and more resourceful than her own father, like Nancy. More than one reviewer has referred to her as “Nancy Drew all grown up,” which I take as truth and compliment.
The real Nancy Drew mystery may be the Mystery of the Appeal of Nancy Drew herself, and of her phenomenal attraction for successive generations of American girls.
I believe the solution to that mystery is this…
Nancy Drew, especially the Nancy of the original story, is our bright heroine, chasing down the shadows, conquering our worst fears, giving us a glimpse of our brave and better selves, proving to everybody exactly how admirable and wonderful a thing it is to be a girl.
Thank you, Nancy Drew.
Nancy Pickard is the acclaimed author of the Anthony, Macavity and Agatha Award-winning Jenny Cain mysteries, most recently No Body (1996). In 1992, she completed The 27-Ingredient Chili Con Carne Murders, featuring detecting chef Eugenia Potter, which was left unfinished by Virginia Rich at the time of her death. Pickard has continued this culinary mystery series, most recently with The Blue Corn Murders (September, 1998).
©1991 by Nancy Pickard. A version of this essay appeared as the introduction to the facsimile editon of The Hidden Staircase by Carolyn Keene, Applewood Books, 1991, ISBN: 1-55709-156-0. Used by permission of Nancy Pickard.