Tuesday, May 6, 2008

A Professional Review: Nancy Drew and Company: Culture, Gender, and Girls' Series

Inness, Sherrie A., ed. 1997. Nancy Drew and Company: Culture, Gender, and Girls’ Series. OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press. ISBN: 0879727365.

“The heroines of series books are as tough as Teflon; they endure throughout the decades, perhaps one of their appeal, while mere mortals must succumb to the ravages of time” (2). More than a century after the golden age of girls’ series literature for girls have finally been given the respect like their counterpart for boys and are being the subject of scholars’ analysis. Given the respect and attention as their counterpart for boys. Many scholars, especially those fueled by the interest of feminist philosophies, have “recognize[d] that studying girls’ reading is an important building block in understanding how girls are socialized” (1).

Dedicated to the girls’ series books popular during the early 19th century and their “cultural significance,” Sherrie Inness as collected nine critical essays by university professors (including herself) and Ph.D. students in hopes to encourage others to further their education on the not only this particular area of children’s literature but children’s literature as a whole. The essays, representing a chapter each that provides summaries of the series and end with endnotes and a work cited, analyzes the series of the teenage heroines are the popular or famously known like Anne Shirley (of Green Gables), Betsy of the Betsy-Tacy series, Cherry Ames, and Nancy Drew and the lesser known Isabel Carleton, Linda Lane, Judy Bolton. Two of the essays also cover the automobile series (e.g. The Automobile Girls and The Motor Girls) and the Girls Scouts and related series. Finally, at the end of the book Inness provides brief professional biographies of the contributing authors.

Series books are primarily defined as books where the events happen in a place somewhere “in a timeless world” where the characters, who are not complex, do not age or, if they do, age very slowly. In comparison, in books in a series, the characters age like their readers. However, as explained in the introduction, the line between these two styles is often blurred, and it is recommended that the “interplay and interweaving of the two styles” should be studied instead (2). Beginning with the Elsie Dinsmore series, which is about an unadventurous “good, sweet, kind” girl, written by Martha Finely in the mid-19th century, the market for girls’ literature became a great profit producing business. However, even though Elsie’s stories was popular, it was Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (and its subsequent volumes about the March girls) that truly path the way for the girl series books that will be seen at the beginning of the 20th century, through Depression time, and well into the 21st century.

The primary topics within each essay are of feminism (sometimes better defined as “womansim”) and social class, but other topics include social activities and history. In the first essay “The Whole of the Moon: L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables Series, author K.L. Poe discusses how Anne of Green Gables lives in a matriarchal community, as seen through the strong personas of the heroine and other female characters, that is seemingly accepted and desired (6).

The next two essays “Gender, Class, and Domesticity of the Isabel Carleton Series” by Kathleen Chamberlain and “Community and Character: A Comparison of Josephine Lawrence’s Linda Lane Series and the Classic Orphan Fiction” by Deidre A. Johnson discuss the various social classes in relation to the two series and the heroines. Chamberlain explains how the author of the Isabel Carelton series, Margaret Eliza Ahsmun, created a new definition of the social class that was changing during the 1910s. The series follow the heroine Isabel Carleton as she grows from high school to college and as she begins to define herself in the middle-class society as well as in the society values. Johnson’s essay on the Linda Lane series provides another point of view on social class as well as feminism. While most of the series’ heroines that are discussed in the collection are of middle to upper class and are white, the Linda Lane series (published in the 1920s) is entirely about the independence of women who are among the marginalized people of the social system (7). The heroine Linda Lane, an orphan who has a pension for being the boss, is taken in by an unmarried and timid yet independent dressmaker, Miss Gilly. Compared to three other classic orphan fictions, especially in which male characters take an important role, the Linda Lane series is comprised of an entire female list of characters and they do not rely on any of the men that do appear in the series.

“Social activities” is the subject of the essays “Mobile and Modern Heroines: Early Twentieth-Century Girls’ Automobile Series” by Nancy Tillman Romalov and “Girl Scouts, Camp Fire Girls, and Woodencraft Girls: The Ideology of Girls’ Scouting Novels, 1910-1935” by Sherrie A. Inness. Romalov examines how the automobile series portrayed the New Woman as being “on the move” and are independent, but also how this freedom is hindered by the traditional social restrictions that require the heroines to “always act like ‘ladies’” (7). In her essay, Inness follows Romalov’s attention to the contradictory aspects of the scouting novels that promote the physical activities for girls but also give the message that all the activities done in scouting is really a preparation for the need healthy physical and mental abilities needed during motherhood

The Besty-Lacy Books, as discussed in Maureen E. Reed’s essay “A Companion to History: Maud Hart Lovelace,” provides a non-comprehensive view of history and is primarily focused on the white, middle-class women. However, Reed argues that despite this narrow view of history during the the-turn-of-the-century, the series provides the readers with the possible historical accounts of this demographic, which in turn could make history more accessible to readers as long as they are aware that there are many unheard voices in the stories. In her essay “’You are needed, desperately needed!: Cherry Ames in World War II,” Sally E. Parry explains how the many nursing books, like the Cherry Ames series, that were published and read during the war and after, provided the readers with stories of the nurses and how the war affected their lives as the women tired to meet the “ideology purposes of a country at war” (9). Parry also points out that the nursing series were also used at times as propaganda for more women to become nurses.

The final two essays are dedicated to the famous teenage sleuth Nancy Drew. Sally E. Parry contributes another essay entitled “The Secret Feminist Heroine: The Search for Values in Nancy Drew and Judy Bolton.” Through a comparison of Nancy Drew to the not-as-famous Judy Bolton, Parry argues that Judy is more of a feminist character than Nancy because Judy is more in touch with others, especially of the lower classes. However, Parry also makes it a point that despite the apparent trend of middle-class, white society that is seen particularly in the Nancy Drew Series, both series provide great positive moral examples for the readers that transcends the social system. The final essay of the collection is Deborah L. Siegel’s “Nancy Drew As New Girl Wonder: Solving It All for the 1930s.” Like Parry, Siegel also covers the issue of class and how Nancy Drew was popular during the Depressions and how they can be interpreted in various periods of the 20th century (as well as the 21st century).

Through the nine critical essays, Sherrie Inness has created a collection that presented just a section of how scholars are approaching the girls’ series books. Even though the essays do not truly touch the topic of how and why these series, some more than others, are still popular among female readers of young and old, these analyses provide a better understanding of the qualities that make up these specific series as well as other series and popular reads in girls’ literature. Nancy Drew and Company: Culture, Gender, and Girls’ Series is an excellent book for any who are interested in girls’ literature.

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