Lessons to be learned from Nancy Drew

Sonia Sotomayor shares love of teen sleuth, mystery

Posted: Thursday, July 02, 2009

As Judge Sonia Sotomayor's professional and personal lives are combed for clues in advance of her hearing for a Supreme Court justice slot, one juicy tidbit stands out for me:

Courtesy of University of Maryland
Courtesy of University of Maryland

Sotomayor is part of the Nancy Drew Sisterhood.

She recently recalled her mother stretching a single-parent budget to buy her Nancy Drew mysteries, "because she saw how I was enamored with them. I had like two shelves of them before I turned to other reading."

Your honor, I confess! I'm part of the Sisterhood, too! So are Sandra Day O'Connor, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Laura Bush and countless other estimable women.

Some of us haven't picked up a Nancy Drew novel (by various ghostwriters, under the pen name Carolyn Keene) for eons. Nor have we played the related computer games, seen the film or TV spinoffs, nor scanned feminist treatises about the amateur sleuth.

All we know is, Nancy rocks! And she has since 1930, when her first breezy-yet-suspenseful caper ("The Secret of the Old Clock") was published.

These whodunits have been steadily gobbled up by several generations of bright little girls (more than 100 million copies sold, in 20-plus languages). And the fictional heroine appears with the boy-sleuth Hardy Boys in the new play "Nancy, Frank and Joe," which will have readings at Seattle's Freehold Theatre this week (see box for details).

I first stumbled across the Nancy Drew series at age 8 or 9. Some neighbors had an old trunk (yup) filled with first editions of the early books - "The Clue in the Diary," "The Hidden Staircase," et al - which I greedily borrowed and devoured.

Those 1930s and '40s relics might today seem formulaic, clumsily plotted and filled with ethnic stereotypes (corrected in later reprints).

But some of what I gleaned from their pages has served me well.

Lesson 1: Always read books with a dictionary at hand.

Nancy drove a "roadster." She got dolled up in a "frock." She described a woman with red locks as "titian-haired." Say, what? The original books are a trove of extinct Jazz Age-y slang, which I eagerly looked up in Webster's. (It was a good warm-up for reading James Joyce, much later.)

Lesson 2: Life is swell if you have your own car, spunky friends and lots of free time.

Nancy was more privileged than Sotomayor, or than I was. She didn't work or attend school. Her lawyer dad bought her a swell blue "roadster" (fabric-topped two- or three-seater car with rumble seat) to tool around in. And her gal pals (plump Bess, butch George) were always up for exploring spooky attics, confronting evildoers and solving enigmas over cocoa and cinnamon toast. Could life get any better? Not in the fantasies of certain 8-year-old bookworms.

Lesson 3: A boyfriend is nice, but do your own thing.

Nancy was remarkably independent for a girl of 16 (later upped to 18). She had a college-boy suitor, Ned Nickerson. But Nancy didn't need Ned to solve crimes or nab bad guys. And she found secret passwords and mysterious letters more exciting than dates.

Lesson 4: Intuition + Brains A Formidable Combo.

Nancy showed us how a steel-trap mind and acute instincts are valuable, complementary tools for a girl with a big job to do. Some critics of Sotomayor's candidacy worry that she may rely too much on empathy and intuition in Supreme Court deliberations. But, hey - it worked for Nancy! And it doesn't take a Miss Marple to deduce it's worked for much of the Drew Sisterhood, too.

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