Saturday, September 26, 2009

Nancy Drew: Unbearable Lightness of being

In Nancy's Mysterious Letter, Nancy rushes to the defense of her loyal postman, Ira Dixon, when his mailbag is stolen from her porch two days from his retirement.

In this time before Social Security, George, Nancy's boyish chum, is amazed that the mailman can retire! "Fancy a letter carrier retiring! I didn't know they were paid enough to save up a fortune!'

Nancy explains that the postman's perfect record has earned him a pension and, plus, he has received a small inheritance.

But when the mailbag is stolen, the mailman's pension is forfeited and Nancy goes with him to visit his superior to plead his case.

She holds her head high and walks into the postal supervisor's office fearlessly, a contrast to Dixon's frightened, bowed shoulders.

Nancy then confronts the angry supervisor, Mr. Cutter, who turns crimson, shouts and bangs his fist on his desk when he hears the news. He also blames Nancy.

Although her cheeks burn "with an angry flush" at Cutter's rudeness, she handles the encounter with hauteur and composure: "Really, you don't have to shout at me. I'm not deaf and I am aware of all you say."

Cutter, however, continues to blast her, castigating her, then jeering at her as "Miss Wise Lady from Know-it-All." Dixon, cowed by Cutter's intimidating tactics, puts up an arm as if to protect Nancy, "but Nancy was fully capable of taking her own part. She was not in the least ruffled by the postmaster's rudeness." She continues to try to get back to the rational point, which is to try to find the thief who stole the mail pouch.

When the police come in, Nancy bestows a "scornful glance" on Cutter before proceeding with her story.

The detectives realize it is THE Nancy Drew they are facing, the daughter of Carson Drew, the respected attorney, and the young woman who has bested them more than once in solving cases. They become more courteous but no less friendly, for "her youth and composure nettled them not a little."

Nancy doesn't care.

At the end of the conference, Nancy pointedly refuses Cutter's outstretched hand as he tries to make amends for having offended the daughter of Carson Drew. As she walks into the "thronged" corridor, clerks and carriers hastily move aside, watching, as Nancy passes "with the composure of a queen."

This remarkable scene reverses gender stereotypes. Here, Nancy stays calm, cool and rational while Cutter, the older male supervisor, reacts emotionally and irrationally to the news of the theft. Here, we meet a Nancy who can be fearless, haughty, relentlessly self-assured and icily angry. The only female in a scene thronged with males, she makes every one of them squirm. She reduces all of them to jellyfish, knows it and doesn't care. She refuses to do anything that might be expected to protect the male ego. She doesn't try to be nice or apologetic or vulnerable. She doesn't need any help. All of Cutter's tactics from shouting and threatening to attempted belittlement--typical male methods of intimidation--fail completely with Nancy. From beginning to end, she dominates.

No wonder girls and women love her. And no wonder she's too hot for Hollywood to handle. No wonder she has to be reduced to the wacky, zany screwball heroine of the 1930s flicks or the postmodern self-parody of the 2007 movie. Can you imagine filming the above scene in Mysterious Letter as written? It would be too blinding, too brilliant, too glaringly assertive for men to handle. Only the bitch to be humiliated could be given such a moment. But that's not Nancy! Nancy behaves as a fully actualized human AND triumphs! Oh we love her, we love her!

Beyond that, we know that it's injustice--glaring, harsh, cruel injustice or the kind of petty, irrational injustice perpetrated against Ira Dixon--that engenders this uncompromising ice goddess Nancy. We know --as the men in this scene do not--that this is not the totality of our heroine, who is also kind and gentle, laughing and fun loving, joyful and generous. With her chums, with us, if not with them. Again, stereotypes are reversed. Nancy is not all sweetness and light with men, savage with other women. Au contraire.

This Nancy stretches back to Jane Fairfax in Jane Austen's Emma and forward to the Donna Parker we saw yesterday, who flames with unbridled fury at being expected to diminish herself to build up a man. But does it stretch to today?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Donna Parker: That Spitfire!

Ah Donna. Our 1950s teenage gal with a flip who stared in seven books, each with a mystery twist, has been characterized on Wikipedia as follows;

"Calm, loyal and understanding, Donna is prone to worry about events outside her control. She is quick to help people and very polite."

Well, yeah, calm and very polite ... sometimes. At other times--fairly frequent times -- she can exhibit a firecracker outrage similar to Nancy Drew's. For example, in Donna Parker: Mystery at Arawak, Donna gives her friend Teddy a dressing down when he accuses her of making him look like a fool with her competency:

“Donna felt the blood rise to her face: ‘So I was supposed to do a poor job to make you look better? I never heard of anything so stupid!’ … She was just furious. Imagine Teddy stopping her for a conversation like that! She hoped she would never see him again.”

That's some calm and polite.

You go girl!

So my question: can you think of other instances when supposed "demure" girl characters show their spirit? I think I'll write about memorable outrage in Nancy Drew tomorrow ....

Friday, September 18, 2009

On Donna


"But the girl who captured my heart completely was -- and always will be -- Donna Parker. Anytime I see one of those brightly painted cardboard covers at yard sales or Salvation Army book collections, I snatch it immediately. Remember good ol' Donna? She never had to face the kind of death-defying mysteries that Nancy or even Trixie confronted, but she had her share of adventures. Pretty, sweet and good-hearted, she nevertheless had killer nerves and lots of courage -- hot stuff for a girl like me, growing up in a single-mom household in the poor part of town. As Jessica Zafra recently wrote in her book Tw7sted, We can never be truly safe; we can only be brave. Donna Parker took that to heart and was among the bravest girl heroines.

I thought of her as I read through Cara Black's latest Aimee Leduc mystery, Murder in the Rue de Paradis. The stylish, hip, and I-eat-nails-for-breakfast Aimee is basically Donna Parker all grown up -- self-assured, witty, smart and a smart ass, a risk-taker (sometimes a reckless one), but with that streak of vulnerability that's both endearing and endlessly frustrating. Yeah, that's my girl."


Monday, September 14, 2009

Childhood Influences: The Bible in Pictures for Little Eyes

The entry below was written by my cyber-friend Ted Gossard who has a blog called Jesus Community at

Mom read us books as little children and the one she read the most and that I remember most vividly is Kenneth Taylor's The Bible in Pictures for Little Eyes. The pictures stood out to me and for me as a child were surely iconic, as the simplicity, clarity and power of the spoken word came through clearly for a child in Kenneth Taylor's (the author of the paraphrase Living Bible) words, with simple questions at the end of each short entry.

This book surely was the most formidable of all books for me as a child in influencing and shaping my thought and formation, the fruit of it coming forth in my conversion years later. But before my conversion I rarely if ever doubted the truth of the simple gospel, or of the Bible. It's only now, as I look back on it, that I begin to understand just a little the profound impact this book, and my mother's faithful reading of it to us, had on me.

The picture of Jesus hanging on the cross always stood out to me. Also the first picture of the book of God creating the heavens and the earth, along with a good many others. Each picture was quite important to us, and the words were kept simple and few, with good questions afterwards, just right for a child.

I have many good childhood memories, but this ranks among the best. My guess is that Mom often read several at a time. I can't remember exacly how I felt during such times, but I'm sure it was formational for me and to this day has an impact on what I do in more ways than I can understand. I think what it did tell me is that the Bible is both true and true to life. So that I carried that belief with me, even through my years of rebellion.

There are surely better books out there for children now in expressing the truth of God's word and God's kingdom come in Jesus. But surely there's no better book as to the format that was used and captured me a a child, preparing me for a love for God's word and the story in it, which continues on to this day.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Dorothy Day: Childhood Influences

Late in life, Dorothy Day, the Roman Catholic social activist, ruminated on the powerful influence of some of the books she read as a child. If we want evidence that childhood books have a profound bearing on who we become, Day is exhibit A.

Day writes about being influenced by Queechy and Wide, Wide World, two novels by Susan Bogert Warner (aka Elizabeth Wetherell) written around 1850. I have not read these novels, but offers the following description of Queechy:

"Like her wildly popular first novel, "The Wide Wide World", "Queechy" focuses on the development of a female character from childhood to marriage. Fleda is by nature a girl "of velvet softness; of delicate, downcast beauty; of flitting but abundant smiles, and of even too many and ready tears". It is religion that enables this soft and delicate character to exert all her strength and face adversity, achieving "patient continuance in well-doing". When those around her are found incapable of providing moral, emotional, or practical support, it is Fleda who finds unknown physical and emotional strength. When all others fail you, says Warner, rely on the promises of God, and persevere.

Fleda's experience is in some part, Susan Warner's. In 1834 Susan and Anna Warner moved to Constitution Island with their father, Henry Warner. They intended to live on the island only during the summer but reverses in Henry Warner's fortune forced them to sell their home in New York City. Even after their writing became popular, the sisters continued to live on the island, doing their own gardening and cooking, sometimes spending winters on the mainland at friends' houses. The sisters promoted the somewhat radical idea that young ladies could actually do their own physical work such as gardening -- Fleda finds pleasure in her garden as well as hard work. The Warner sisters were also known for their deep commitment to religious teachings. The beauty of the natural world, and religion, are beloved by Fleda in "Queechy".

The above is almost a blueprint of Day's life: She became a convert to Christianity (in her case, Roman Catholicism), went to live among the poor and strove every day to be patient and help build a world where it was "easier for people to be good." Like Fleda, she was the pillar of strength in her community. She relied on God. She persevered. As in the real life story of the Warners, Day bought a house on an island--Staten Island--and traveled between it and New York City (and other places). Like Fleda, Day embraced physical labor and found it nurtured the soul. She loved the beauty of the natural world and religion.

Day also read Sinclair Lewis's The Jungle with fascination as a child at a time her family was living in Chicago, and as result of the book, would roam the poorer neighborhoods of South Chicago. The poverty did not repel her. In fact, she was drawn to smells: baking bread and garlic, flowers. This prepared her for living among the poor in the lower East side of New York.

In Day's early reading, we find stunning support for the theory that childhood reading helps form who we become as adults.

I have two questions: what books from childhood can you look back at and see that, unwittingly, had a disproportionate influence on the rest of your life? In what ways? Second, if the early books we read have a disproportionate impact on the "tabula rasa" of young minds, should we be concerned about what's out there? Or can we trust that the influence of the less substantial books will fade away?