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The Secret of the Old Clock: 12/22/10

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About two years ago when we first started taking Harriet to the library she insisted that I read the Nancy Drew series. Now what a then two year old toddler knew about a series that started in 1930, I don't know. But I have a policy in this family: if my children recommend a book to me, regardless of my personal opinion on of the book, I read it. In return, I get to recommend books to them. The system works remarkably well.

The book Harriet chose for me was The Bungalow Mystery, the third in the series. Since then I have been reading through the series as I have the chance. I'm not reading them in order but I a have found the process of reading them (after refusing to read them as a child) enlightening.

What I hadn't realized when I started this journey through Riverdale, was that the books had been rewritten or heavily edited (depending on the book) starting in 1959. The series starts with The Secret of the Old Clock.

This post will be two reviews in one. When I first read The Secret of the Old Clock by Carolyn Keene back in February, I checked out a copy of the rewritten 1959 edition. I held off on reviewing it because the Wikipedia article outline a number of big differences. I wanted to read the original before I decided what I thought of the story. In September I found (again through the library) a reissue of the original 1939 text. I was glad to (re)read while the text was still fresh in my head.

The basic plot, regardless of which version you read is this: Nancy hears of a potentially missing will that would benefit a pair of sisters hard hit by the Depression. The current beneficiaries are a well to do family with no social graces and a pair of obnoxious daughters. Nancy's investigations take her into the countryside to a summer cottage and right into danger.

The original version is twenty pages longer and has a more chapters (of shorter lengths). These extra establish the poor behavior of the Topham sisters so that Nancy's desire to see them lose their inheritance is understandable. In the rewritten version most of these establishing scenes with the sisters are cut out, making Nancy's behavior seem spiteful and irrational.

The next big change is how the Horner (changed to Hoover) sisters are described as living. In the original they are described living hand to mouth on the funds they earn from their egg farm and from their dressmaking. They are typical Depression era characters. Changing their family name to Hoover in the 1959 edition brings to mind the Hoovervilles (coined the same year as the book was first published) but feels out of place for a book written at the start of the Depression.

Finally there is drunken groundskeeper who rescues Nancy after the thieves have locked her up in the closet. In the original his dialogue is written in typical for the time period Negro dialogue. Yes, he's written as a stereotype but so are most of the other characters in the book.

Changing him into an old, white (but still drunk) man in the 1959 doesn't make things better. He needs to be there to keep the dialog open. Even the beloved Nancy Drew series falls prey to tropes and stereotypes. We can use these moments to open a dialog with our children. Make it a teachable moment instead of sweeping it under the rug.

On behalf of Nancy though, she treats the guard better than she does the Topham sisters. Nancy is presented as being polite, resourceful and respectful person until she is mistreated or sees someone else being mistreated.

If you decide to read (or reread) the Nancy Drew books, do yourself a favor and get copies of the Applewood Books which are reprints of the originals texts, not the 1950s and 1960s rewrites.

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