Girl Sleuth

Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her

by Melanie Rehak

Girl Sleuth

Hardcover, 364 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, List Price: $25 | purchase

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Book Summary

An examination of the Nancy Drew stories and their influence on American girlhood since the 1930s explores mysteries related to the character's creators, and her role in shaping the modern American woman's identity.

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Awards and Recognition

Edgar Award (2006)

NPR stories about Girl Sleuth

Woman in the Mirror

Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Girl Sleuth

Girl Sleuth

The Stratemeyer Clan

These suggestions are for a new series for girls verging on novels. 224 pages, to retail at fifty cents. I have called this line the "Stella Strong Stories," but they might also be called "Diana Drew Stories," "Diana Dare Stories," "Nan Nelson Stories," "Nan Drew Stories" or "Helen Hale Stories" . . .

Stella Strong, a girl of sixteen, is the daughter of a District Attorney of many years standing. He is a widower and often talks over his affairs with Stella and the girl was present during many interviews her father had with noted detectives and at the solving of many intricate mysteries. Then, quite unexpectedly, Stella plunged into some mysteries of her own and found herself wound up in a series of exciting situations. An up-to-date American girl at her best, bright, clever, resourceful and full of energy.

***

IN SEPTEMBER of 1929 children's book mogul Edward Stratemeyer sent one of his inimitable typed memos to Grosset & Dunlap, his longtime publisher, describing a new line of books he hoped they would launch the following spring. Though he proved to have an uncharacteristically tin ear when it came to choosing a name for his heroine- any other option on his list of possibilities had a better ring to it than "Stella"-his sense of her life and her intrepid personality were flawless. While they had no way of knowing that Stratemeyer's girl detective would eventually become a celebrity not only in the children's book world but in the world at large, Grosset & Dunlap's editors certainly knew a good thing when they saw it. They accepted Stratemeyer's series on the basis of his memo, which also included brief plotlines for the first five books in the series, and his reputation, which, by the time "Nan Drew" burst on to the scene with her fashionable outfits and boundless intelligence, had been the source of admiration and envy-and a great fortune for Stratemeyer-for several decades. When his latest proposal reached their Manhattan office, he had been writing for children for more than forty years and was so steeped in the idiom of his chosen genre that he had given even the events of his own life-which were rather straightforward and businesslike when it came down to it-the sheen and thrill of a juvenile story.

This transformation had begun at the moment of his first serious publication in a children's story paper in November of 1889. It was a fanciful tale called "Victor Horton's Idea," and it told of a boy who went out into the world to live life-unsuccessfully, it would transpire-like the characters in his favorite dime novels.


Victor was fifteen years old, naturally bright and lively, and if he had not held so high of an opinion of himself, he would have been a first-rate lad.

Besides being conceited, Victor was dissatisfied with the quietness of country life. He longed to go forth into the great world and achieve fame and fortune.

Now, though this idea is often a very laudable one, it was not so in the present instance. Victor's idea upon the subject had been gathered wholly from the pages of numerous dime novels and disreputable story papers loaned him by his particular crony, Sam Wilson, and was, therefore, of a deceptive and unsubstantial nature, and likely to do more harm than good.

The details of Victor's exploits appeared in installments over five weeks, crammed into the narrow columns of a richly illustrated black-and-white children's broadsheet out of Philadelphia called Golden Days for Boys and Girls (subscription price $3 per annum). Alongside them ran informative articles with titles like "How to Make a Guitar" ("Those who have read the articles on 'Violin Making' and have succeeded in making one would, perhaps, like to make a guitar if they knew what a simple matter it is"); interesting trivia; and true stories about heroic rescues of humans by dogs.

Stratemeyer was twenty-six years old, tall, slender, and bespectacled, with a brushy mustache, dark hair combed back off a high forehead, and a preternatural instinct for the arc of a good tale for young people. He had, according to one news report, "a scholarly appearance . . . and his eyes are a trifle contracted from constant application to his work." Indeed, in person, Stratemeyer betrayed no signs of the flights of fancy that had produced Victor and would go on to invent countless other young scalawags, heroes, and heroines over the next forty years. As one reporter would later describe him, he was "a tranquil-faced man, with kind, good-humored eyes . . . [and] a curiously deliberate manner of speaking. One doubts if he has ever been hurried into a decision or ever given an answer to a question without earnest consideration." He also had a healthy sense of perspective on his chosen field. By the end of Victor Horton's travails, the young man announces to his hapless friend Sam: "Dime novels are a first-class fraud!"

Nonetheless, they were the field that Stratemeyer aimed to get into. Myth had it that he had written "Victor Horton's Idea" on a sheet of brown package paper during quiet moments while clerking at his brother's tobacco store in Newark, New Jersey. In spite of having recorded very clearly in his own notes that he had written the story at home, Stratemeyer, knowing better than most the value of a good yarn, repeated the entertaining falsehood about its conception whenever he was asked to. As one news feature of the era printed it, complete with the final triumph of will and self-knowledge over discouragement:

His initial long story-18,000 words-was written on store wrapping paper and later copied onto white paper. The author, who was then twenty-five, was not satisfied with it so he laid it aside. After a year . . . he revised the manuscript carefully and sent it to Golden Days. The check for $75 he received Stratemeyer bore proudly to his father, Henry J. Stratemeyer. "Look at this," he said. The father, who had told him he was wasting his time writing the tale and might be better engaged in a more useful activity, regarded the check, then jerked up his glasses. "Why, it's a check made out to you!" he exclaimed. Stratemeyer explained he had received it for the story the parent had tried to discourage. "Paid you that for writing a story?" his father repeated. "Well, you'd better write a lot more of them."


In addition to his paycheck, Stratemeyer received something even more valuable: some sage-not to mention prophetic-advice from the editor of Golden Days. "I think you would become a good serial writer if you were to know just what was required, always remembering that each 'to be continued' must mark a holding point in the story." The young author not only took these words fully to heart, but would incorporate them, practically verbatim, into his own advice to writers for years to come.

Born on October 4, 1862, Edward Stratemeyer was the youngest of six children, three of them half-brothers, and all of them musically or artistically talented. His father, Henry Julius Stratemeyer, had come to the United States from Germany in 1837, along with a wave of German immigrants that only got larger and larger as the nineteenth century progressed. Many of them, including Henry Stratemeyer, headed out to the California coast in search of the shiniest, most tempting American dream of them all: gold. By 1851, though, Henry had mined more fool's gold than the actual metal, and he headed back east to Elizabeth, New Jersey, to visit his brother, George, also an émigré; his brother's wife, Anna; and the couple's three sons. Surrounded by family, Henry decided to stay in Elizabeth and settled into shopkeeping, advertising himself as a "wholesale and retail dealer in tobacco, cigars, snuff and pipes."

Two years after his brother's arrival in New Jersey, George Stratemeyer was stricken during a cholera epidemic. Knowing death was near, he asked Henry to stay in America and look after his family. Henry agreed, and in 1854, not long after George's death, he married his brother's widow, making his three nephews into his stepsons. Henry and Anna went on to have three more children: Louis Charles, born in 1856; Anna, born in 1859; and Edward, born in 1862. The family was well established in the cultured, comfortable merchant circle of Elizabeth and was barely touched by the War Between the States. Neither a military man nor a willing volunteer, the elder Stratemeyer had no trouble staying out of it.

As they grew, the Stratemeyer boys were put to work in their father's thriving tobacco store, in order that he might teach them the basics of commerce and, especially, entrepreneurship. The children also received musical training. Edward's sister, Anna, who would become an accomplished pianist, received her entire schooling at a prominent conservatory in town. Edward, on the other hand, was educated in the public schools of Elizabeth, and though he had an ear for music, too, preferred language. "You ask when I first wanted to become an author," he wrote to an acquaintance in 1919. "I think I must have been about six years old when I attempted to write my first story." He displayed an early interest in publishing, as well, running around his neighborhood with a toy printing press-an accoutrement that was all the rage at the time-turning out items for the pleasure of his friends and family. He would interview local residents about the goings-on in their lives during the week, then print up their answers in a newspaper that he sold back to them, at the price of one cent, on Saturday mornings.

Two chapbooks followed, with the entertaining, inscrutable titles That Bottle of Vinegar (1877) and The Tale of a Lumberman as Told by Himself (1878). The latter included, in bold black-and-white, the confident statement "E. STRATEMEYER PUBLISHER" on its cover. Stratemeyer was just sixteen years old, but he had grown up reading the books of Oliver Optic (the nom de plume of William T. Adams) and Horatio Alger, the two predominant boys' fiction authors of the period, and the adventure-filled, rags-to-riches stories, as well as their action-packed dime-novel counterparts, left an impression on him that lasted well into his adult years. As he recalled fondly in an interview: "I had quite a library, including many of Optic's and Alger's books. At seven or eight, when I was reading them, I said, 'If only I could write books like that I'd be the happiest person on earth.'"

Stratemeyer graduated from Elizabeth High School, the valedictorian of his class of three. Afterward, as was the norm for even a middle-class boy-only 1 percent of Americans attended college in the 1870s-he received two years of private tutoring in rhetoric, composition, and literature. He continued to combine clerking in a tobacco store-his brother Maurice's this time-with writing, refining his stories, and selling them to the story papers that were appearing all over the country, like the Penny Magazine (which paid him $1 for "A Horrible Crime"), the Experiment, and the Boys' Courier.


Copyright © 2005 by Melanie Rehak

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