Rehak's account makes compelling reading -- not least because, like some Dickens waif, Nancy had a tumultuous upbringing. Although readers knew her as the creation of "Caroline Keene," that WASPy-sounding author was as fictional as the young detective. In reality, Nancy came to life as a marketing ploy. Conceived by a German immigrant named Edward Stratemeyer, Nancy was pitched as a follow-up to such heroines as Dorothy Dale, "girl of today," one of the 140 girls' series that were started between 1900 and 1920. As modernized homes freed families from chores, children were reading -- and buying -- more books. Stratemeyer catered to this emerging market.
In 1929, he proposed a new series, possibly featuring a heroine named Stella Strong, to his publisher, Grosset & amp; Dunlap. When G & amp;D signed on, he forwarded his sketchy plot outlines to the 24-year-old Mildred Augustine (Wirt), a recent University of Iowa grad who had sent him some stories. For as little as $85 a book, she ended up writing most of the 30 Nancy Drew mysteries to come before 1953, when she left the Stratemeyer Syndicate for good.
The reason for that split -- and the dramatic tension behind Girl Sleuth -- lay in the conflicts between Wirt and Stratemeyer's daughter Harriet. When Stratemeyer died in 1930, his widow and his two daughters, who had been raised to be ladies (that is, not to work), sought to sell the enterprise. But the Depression limited offers, and Harriet Stratemeyer Adams took up the reins. At first reluctant, she grew increasingly involved as Nancy's popularity blossomed. By the '60s, Adams was claiming to have written all the books. As ably recounted by Rehak, the struggle between Wirt and Adams played out as the tomboyish Nancy was edited into demure submission and back again.
This tension mirrored the ebb and flow of 20th-century feminism, and Rehak traces her heroine's independent spirit to the suffragists' battle for the vote. But by also recounting the backlash against flappers and Depression conservatism, she paints a scenario that remains familiar today.