Melanie Rehak,
Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew &
the Women Who Created Her

(Harcourt, 2005)

How many American girls grew up reading Carolyn Keene's Nancy Drew series? I know I did, as did my mother, my aunt and my little sister, who inherited the many books I added to the family collection with my allowance. For many girls, Nancy Drew was the symbol of a strong, independent, intelligent woman, long before Buffy Summers came along, and many grown women look back on her adventures with nostalgic fondness.

But very few of those little girls knew that Carolyn Keene -- along with Laura Lee Hope (The Bobbsey Twins), Franklin W. Dixon (The Hardy Boys), Victor Appleton (Tom Swift) and many others -- was the invention of a man named Edward Stratemeyer. Stratemeyer's genius idea was to form a syndicate of hired writers. He would come up with a series idea and a pseudonym for its author, then send one of his hired writers a detailed outline from which he or she would produce the story. The completed manuscript was then edited to conform with Stratemeyer's specifications. The writers signed a contract specifying that they gave up all rights to the work they produced and forbidding them to reveal that they were the actual author or to associate themselves with the series pseudonym. It worked remarkably well and the Stratemeyer Syndicate was extremely successful.

In Girl Sleuth, Melanie Rehak tells the story of the two women who were most instrumental in making Nancy Drew the heroine of the 'tween set: Mildred Wirts Benson, Stratemeyer's choice for author of the series, and Harriet Stratemeyer Adams, who, with her sister Edna, inherited the business when their father died just 12 days after Nancy Drew's launch. Mildred was an adventuresome, athletic young woman, fresh out of a Midwestern college when the syndicate hired her, while Harriet, educated at Wellesley, was more demure. Mildred wrote the first few Nancy books before leaving the syndicate's employ (though she later returned). Harriet eventually took over writing the series, but both women brought something of themselves to Nancy's character.

Girl Sleuth is an ambitious work. Not only does it tell the story of Nancy Drew from her inception to the present day, but it's also the intertwined biographies of Edward Stratemeyer, Mildred Wirts Benson, and Harriet Stratemeyer Adams as well as a portrait of the times in which they all lived. Told in an engaging and enjoyable style, Girl Sleuth is a fascinating book, especially if you've read more than one of the Stratemeyer Syndicate's series.

by Laurie Thayer
25 March 2006

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