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Stories and Sequiturs and Sleuthing, Oh My!

August 10, 2011

The bus rattled down the dusty gravel road, and I squinted up to see if the bouncing would drop the window down.  It was far enough into spring that the afternoon ride home was uncomfortably sticky, and no matter how carefully I counted when I was getting on the bus (“Four back.  No, five.  Wait.  Okay, yeah, I’m sure eight is good.”), I seemed to have the knack for finding the seat where the window would slide two tantalizing inches downward before getting wedged stuck.

I could see the boys we’d just dropped off trudging up their driveway.  They’d tied their heavy winter coats (which our mothers insisted we still needed in the mornings) around their waists, and looked equally as hot and miserable as I was.  Evan was the older and already in fifth grade, and sometimes I could ask him to smack the window down for me, but not today.  Today had been Book Fair Day (one of the seven observed holy days in the Ali universe), and as I had been standing there in the library, basking in the warm glow of new books, his stupid brother Marshall had come in with the rest of my class and started making fun of The Baby-Sitters Club Little Sister books, and all girl books in general.  Marshall and I cordially hated each other anyway, and I wasn’t going to speak to him, or his brother, if I could help it.

I scowled at them through the glass, slouched down, and pulled my knees up.  The backs of my legs were hot and sticky, too, so I crammed my own stupid heavy winter coat underneath them and started scrummaging through the book bag for my precious new acquisition.  My stop was towards the end of the route, and if I focused I could get a lot finished before The Turn.

Earlier in the year, there had been a few isolated incidents where I might have gotten a little caught up in what I was reading.  Maybe Hans Brinker had just started The Race with his silver skates, or Alice was chatting with the Queen of Hearts, or Bunnicula was draining the chlorophyll out of celery stalks, or . . . well, you get the picture . . . and maybe—and this is just speculation, mind you—those eensy-teensy-hardly-even-worth-mentioning occurrences were times I didn’t pay so much attention to where I was, and maybe the bus driver had finished the route and been tooling back down the road on his way home, and then he saw my mother standing in our yard, wondering where her second-grader was.

Sigh. 

I was now under Imperial Mandate that books had to be put away when our bus turned off Duncan Bridge and onto Blue Creek.  Normally that wouldn’t be the worst sentence in the world, but today after I got home I had homework, and then dinner, and then my mom had this whole “you’re-going-to-go-to-sleep-at-bedtime-not-stay-up-reading-for-two-hours” thing going on, so I wouldn’t have time to finish The Book unless I knocked it out now.

And I was really excited about this book.

Our school library had twenty-three Nancy Drew books, and I’d read them all.  Some I loved and checked out weekly (The Hidden Staircase, The Clue in the Diary, The Mysterious Mannequin), and some I had to read with one eye half-closed (The Whispering Statue, I’m looking at you.  You know what you did.).

Apparently, even at that early age I was a completist.  I’d read two of the books and realized there was a problem.  In my first book, Nancy sleuthed and snooped and solved the mystery with the help of her best friends (George and Bess.  George was my favorite.), and her boyfriend, Ned Nickerson.  In my second book, Nancy and I were in the middle of escaping from a very suspicious house fire when we ran into a young man with a fancy convertible.  Ned???  Nancy was meeting Ned???  For the first time???  The metaphorical record player in my head skritched to a stop.

I don’t know if I’d never experienced sequenced stories before, or if I’d just never noticed chronological inconsistencies, but my eyes had been opened.  Things happened in books you hadn’t read yet.   My obligation suddenly clear to me, I began to meticulously read them in order, taking as my bible the numbers on the outside of the spine and tracking my progress against the titles listed on the frontispiece.  Half a year later, I was done with all twenty-three.  The frontispiece showed fifty-seven books, though.  Obviously, I was missing something. 

The “lost” books began to haunt me.  I stalked the shelves for weeks, privately convinced that they were just checked out, and would come back shortly.  I returned to the frontispiece again and again, trying to reconcile the available titles with the numbers listed.  I dreamed up mad explanations (like maybe they’d gone back and changed some of the books and gave them new names, but not new numbers).  Finally, I mustered up my courage and tried to ask the librarian where ALL the Nancy Drew books were.  She was a little confused, because I’d had copies of one Nancy Drew or another in constant circulation for weeks, but the poor woman gently led me over to the orange shelving unit in the corner, third and fourth shelves down, right next to The Boxcar Children and The Hardy Boys.  You know, where I’d been looking all along.

That’s when I realized that my school really only had those twenty-three copies.

I started begging my parents to take me to the county library.  Probably, I reasoned, every town had purchased one complete set, and all the libraries had to share, and this kind of thing happened all the time.  Probably, I’d walk in the building and they’d have a big cardboard sign with a bright red arrow, and probably a printed-out list that had all the ones I needed highlighted in yellow, and maybe even a library lady standing there waiting to help me find them. 

Bowing to the inevitable, one rainy Sunday my patient mother made the thirty minute drive to town.  The county library loomed in white stucco.  Appropriately awed, I quietly entered the sacred repository of knowledge and stood, dripping, in the lobby.  There were no signs.

I held on grimly to my sense of optimism and squished my way towards the children’s section.  I spotted the familiar bindings.  I raised a trembling finger, ready to begin my count . . . and I saw the titles.  Hidden Staircase.  Mysterious Mannequin.  Larkspur Lane.  Clue in the Diary.  I KNEW these books already!  I grabbed the nearest book (Old Clock) and began ticking through my now nearly-memorized frontispiece.  The ONLY unread one they had was #6 (Red Gate Farm, here’s your shout out!  Nothin’ but love for ya!).  My carefully rationalized universe crumbled, along with my faith in county libraries.  They’d had NO signs at all, and the library lady yelled at me for asking ridiculous questions. 

Discouraged and disillusioned, I had no real plan on how to get the others until the day The Book Fair arrived.  (You know, those words are still able to cue celestial harmonics and angel choirs.  Even an occasional cherub on a cloud, strumming a lute.)

Sitting there, smiling at me from those little fold-up metal shelves, The Book Fair had a new Nancy Drew book!

I approached it carefully at first.  I will admit that I judged books by their covers, and this one was a paperback.  That was okay, I reassured myself, because almost all of the books I had at home were paperbacks.  They seemed to sell them that way, and it was really only libraries that had hardbacks.  Still, though, its cover art had this bizarre “real”-looking mall queen on it, not the jaunty penciled sleuth with the flashlight I was used to, and I didn’t recognize the title from my list . . . but it was there and it was unread and (after a few really earnest, beseeching looks at my mother, who was beginning to lose patience with all things Nancy Drew related) IT WAS MINE!

The day may have been difficult, and Marshall might have been intent on terrorizing me, and there was a good chance that my skin was going to melt off just sitting on the bus, and once I got home I would be memorizing multiplication tables . . . but at that moment?  All was well.  I had a mystery to investigate!

Now, most people probably know the Nancy Drew universe was created by the same guy that did the Hardy Boys, and that all the books were ghost-written by a parade of different journalists.  Less well known are the different attempts to revise and reboot and reframe the universe itself.

The originals were edited and re-issued in the fifties, mostly to tone out racist language–what was socially acceptable in the late thirties had become pretty ugly by then—but many have also commented on the ways Nancy’s character itself was edited.  She became less involved in the investigations, less nosy, less active in key moments, and more the wholesome All-American girl that (it was assumed) the times wanted to see. 

By the eighties, the publishers felt like Nancy was ready for another revamp.  They started a series, called The Nancy Drew Files, that aged the character and incorporated much harder, edgier mysteries.  In essence, Nancy dumped Ned, went to college, and started investigating murders.  There was a lot of controversy about the covers, too.  The original hard covers had art with Nancy in a moment of discovery or action.  Later, after the mid-century revisions, cover art shifted her to the side, where she was most often hiding behind a tree and observing some sort of mysterious deeds. 

The Nancy Drew Files took a different tack entirely.  Instead of Nancy investigating, say, a sapphire scarab or whispering cabinet or secret statue, you got a lot of Nancy in glamour-shot poses, looking fashion-forward, and—always, always–standing next to The Love Interest.  Very Sweet Valley High.  Priorities had shifted a bit in Nancy’s world.

All of this was over my head that day, though.  What I knew, as l began reading, was that suddenly Hannah the Housekeeper wasn’t making breakfast for the friends (which was one of my favorite traditions in the books) and Carson Drew was accused of murder (MURDER?? Mr. Drew??  Blasphemy!). I had to surface for a moment, to collect my thoughts.  I was barely halfway home, didn’t have any other books with me. 

I kept reading, hoping it would get better, or at least would somehow begin to make sense.  Nancy, my Nancy, who I had spent half a year with, who was the big sister I didn’t have, and was the kind of teenager I was quite certain I would be. . . the Nancy that I loved and idolized and believed in, came out of the pages of this new book like an obnoxious snit and a wannabe journalist.  She wasn’t even a detective!  No matter how hard I tried to find her, Nancy Just Wasn’t Nancy. 

In a world where I didn’t know anything about franchises or market segmentation or age-adjusted media, I knew with the whole of my eight-year-old heart that this was NOT the Nancy Drew Universe.**  Something was profoundly wrong.

I put the book down, only a few chapters finished.  I refused to read more until I knew what had happened to make the story go so far sideways.  Understanding the truth of the story had somehow become more critical to me than finishing what I’d started.

It was the first time I’d ever challenged canon.  To my young understanding, there was The Universe, and then there was the book I was reading.  The two did not belong together, even if publishers and the names of the characters insisted that they did. 

About two years later I came across that book again, in the bottom of a trunk of my books, and finally realized how important the word “Files” had been in the title.  Realizing it was a book never intended to be set in the same sequence as the hard covers, I was a little abashed, and felt like maybe I’d treated it unfairly.  It just seemed . . . polite . . . to go back and finish the story.  Surely, now it would make more sense, and I could enjoy it for what it was.  I picked it up and began to read.

Almost immediately I found myself reading as quickly as I could, just trying to make scrabble my way through to the end, and was relieved when I was able to close the book and put it away.  Yes, I was older, and yes, I’d read many, many more books since then, but nothing had changed.  I was convinced that it didn’t belong in the same universe.  I immediately buried it back in the bottom of my trunk and returned to reading The Baby-Sitters Club.  (Yes, all of them.  Yes, in order.  Did you think that would change?)

There have been a few times where I’ve tried to articulate to someone the deep wrongness I felt when I read that book.  One teacher told me that’s what happened when I read books too advanced for my age level.  Another said that the author knew what they were doing, and that the reader had no business criticizing their work.  Eventually, I stopped trying to explain it to people.  No one seemed to understand. 

Nancy was one of my earliest heroes, and profoundly influenced what I expected from both female characters and from myself.  As an adult, I understand story devices like resets and reboots and updates and alternative market skews and universe development, but I’ve also learned that “the story” may not be the same thing as the book you’re reading, or the movie you’re watching.

When the story is accurately expanded (in whatever medium–TV, movie, book, or blink), you feel like you’re truly experiencing “what happens next”.  The characters in that story become friends and extended family.  You live with them through their adventures and misadventures, love and losses.  You know their children, their neighbors, their politics and their histories.  You can reach into their world and explore other countries, other continents, and even other eras of their universe.  Through it all, though, there is a feeling that you’re often barely aware of, a hum of familiarity that tells you what world you’re in. 

When it’s not right, though . . . you may have people that share names with characters you know, may share jobs and possibly even a few personality traits, but it will always feel (at best) like you’re having a bizarre pod person encounter.  At its worst, you feel betrayed by the story.  The betrayal I experienced that day on the bus kept me from exploring Nancy’s world further.  I didn’t look for the rest of the original books, I didn’t read any more of the Files; I didn’t watch the TV show that they released a few years later, and I skipped WB’s Emma Roberts movie.

And that’s too bad, because (the real) Nancy’s the kind of girl that a lot of us would enjoy spending more time around.

*Many years later, that bus driver became a good family friend.  I like to think that had something to do with me.  Well, more specifically, with wanting to know where the devil I’d been and what the devil I’d been thinking, but still. . .  I guess I’m just what you’d call a relationship builder.

**There was ONE redeeming thing I managed to take away from the book.  Early on, Nancy has a terse conversation with a frenemy who’s eager to report that Carson Drew has been “charged” with murder.  Nancy points out the difference between “charged” and “arrested”.  This is the first time I remember really understanding how critical—and subtle–diction could be.

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