28 November 2010

Investigating Nancy Drew

Reviewed by Mary Ellen Geer

Nancy Drew has had a long career in popular fiction, and even though many things about the novels seem very dated now, she is still a character that many readers remember with admiration and affection. Especially readers, like me, who grew up in the 1950s. It was the decade of postwar complacency, and the role models for teenage girls were limited in that pre-Feminine Mystique era when we couldn’t even imagine the changes the 1960s would bring. Our mothers mostly stayed at home, and many of us had little independence before we went to college. Nancy Drew offered a picture of a different kind of life. Not only was she smart, attractive, independent, and resourceful, but she had no mother telling her what to do! Her father, the prominent attorney Carson Drew, supported her sleuthing activities, admired her intellect, and financed her lifestyle--including her sporty blue roadster, her impressive array of outfits for every occasion, and her constant road trips with her friends--without ever a complaint. Even though there was no mother to run the household, Nancy had no duties in that area because Hannah Gruen, the Drews’ efficient housekeeper, took care of everything. In short, an enviable situation!
But it wasn’t just Nancy’s comfortable life and freedom that we envied, it was her job--even though she was still in high school, she spent much of her time as a very competent detective. She could recognize clues when she saw them, and she knew how to interpret them. She got to the heart of things. She tracked down evildoers and miscreants, and brought justice to the innocent. This, I think, was her real attraction: she could solve mysteries.

For all these reasons, I was delighted to come across Kathleen Aguero’s chapbook, which consists of nineteen poems that are all inspired in one way or another by Nancy Drew. But there’s more to these poems than nostalgia--many of them move quickly into other territory, and Aguero writes with humor and insight about a variety of situations. In the poem “Ambition” she shows the kind of independence that Nancy represented for her readers:
            Nancy, like Athena,
            must have been born
            straight from her father’s head.
            .  .  .  .  .
                                    Climbing
            out of windows, hiding
            in dark cellars, hardly
            a woman at all, at least
            not like our mothers,
            hair in rollers, lipstick
            smears on coffee cups.
            Go into law or business,
            my mother told me,
            meaning I might have a chance
            to call the shots,
            meaning, she’d also
            wanted to be Nancy.

In other poems Aguero acknowledges the privileged life that Nancy led, as when the faithful housekeeper, Hannah Gruen, speaks to Nancy’s readers in one poem: “How could Nancy get to be Nancy/ without me, a flowered apron/ doing magic tricks--food appears,/ dishes disappear--but not quite a mother/ reigning her in? How many of you/ were born in a house with a live-in housekeeper?” And in “No Parking” she refers to one of the most dated aspects of the novels, the fact that the criminals Nancy pursued were always from the lower social classes: Nancy walks confidently on the beach in a shorefront town where she belongs to the country club, while the “swarthy criminals/ . . . circle in their pick-ups,/ searching for legal parking./ . . . Let them park in Revere and hitchhike here.”
Whereas in the novels Nancy never fails to solve a mystery, in many of these poems she is unsuccessful, as in “Stumped,” “Unsolved Mysteries,” and “Mystery of the Tolling Bell.” And in the poem “Mammogram,” Nancy is confronted by a situation unlike anything she’s had to deal with in her investigations:
            The clue, a small lump
            she finds sleuthing
            in her own breast.
            .  .  .  .  .
            She’s felt baffled before,
            but what is this drop in her gut
            like an elevator going down?
            Her own pale breast
            withholds its secrets.

We are in very different territory now. And in the poems toward the end of the book, Aguero leaves Nancy Drew behind to explore more general situations, all of them mysteries where we have no certain answers. In “Suppose” the poet asks how it is that teenagers, even one’s own children, can do things that hurt others, or can be victims. In “The Case of the Suicidal Friend,” she writes about the helplessness of those left behind after a suicide, and the way the living search for clues to the reason for the death. Three of the book’s most moving poems are about the speaker’s mother, who is suffering from dementia and eventually has to live in a nursing home. Dementia is certainly one of life’s biggest mysteries, as Aguero says at the beginning of “The Case of the Impersonator”:
            The first clue is she doesn’t know me.
            The mystery is that she looks just like my mother.

In these three strong poems the language of mysteries and clues takes on a whole new resonance.
In the book’s final poem, “Zen Nancy,” Aguero returns to Nancy Drew, but this is a very different Nancy who has gone beyond the solving of mysteries and has reached a new level of consciousness: “What curiosity/ she feels is inner, quiet./ The mysteries she solved, so innocent/ they hardly seem crimes at all.” These days, Nancy is solving “more difficult cases”:
            the code of the aurora borealis,
            the trail of the horseshoe crab, the sound
            of stone, the color of air,
            the vast and clueless sky.

I love this picture of a new, enlightened Nancy. It’s a satisfying ending to a very enjoyable book.