Other than being children’s books heroines, Laura Ingalls and Nancy Drew might appear to have little in common. The first was a real pioneer girl born more than half a century before the second, a girl detective who is purely fictional. Laura is the center of gentle, organic, autobiographical family stories; Nancy, though now-iconic and much-beloved, was created largely as a consumer product. Laura travels by covered wagon; Nancy tools around in her blue roadster.
But, as I discuss in my book From Little Houses to Little Women: Revisiting a Literary Childhood, recently released in paperback, these two heroines and their series have a surprising number of things in common:
- They first appeared in stories around the same time, Nancy in 1930, Laura in 1932.
- Both broke models for female heroines, offering adventure and positive messages about possibilities available to girls.
- Both inspired TV shows in the 1970s. “Nancy Drew Mysteries,” ran from 1977-1979. “Little House on the Prairie” ran from 1974-1983.
- Both book series are products of collaborations between writers whose values were often at odds. The Nancy Drew books were produced by the Stratemeyer Syndicate, headed by Edward Stratemeyer, a children’s book mogul who created characters, series, and outlines and then farmed out the actual writing to a variety of authors. The early Nancy Drews, as documented in Melanie Rehak’s 2006 book Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her, were written by two women. Rehak portrays in fascinating detail the reluctant collaboration of Mildred Wirt Benson and series editor Harriet Stratemeyer Adams. While until recently Benson’s contribution had been downplayed, the role of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s daughter Rose Wilder Lane in writing the Little House series has long been acknowledged by scholars. There is evidence that Rose helped to shape her mother’s lyrical writing into stories and that the series is a complicated mesh of the politics of mother and daughter. Both series are the products of sometimes difficult relationships and reflect the sometimes conflicting values of the teams who created them.
- Both series feature characters who intimidated me as a child with their dazzling competence. Pa Ingalls singlehandedly builds log houses and barns and digs wells and constructs chimneys and, when recovering from an illness and unable to “work,” fashions rocking chairs out of slender willows from the creek bottom. He farms, he plays the violin, he’s a community leader. There’s nothing he can’t do. Nancy Drew is also fazed by nothing. If someone at a neighboring table chokes on raw steak, she pauses from tracing clues to administer the Heimlich, add a delicious marinade to the meat, and fire up her portable grill to ensure that it’s fully cooked. If her boyfriend Ned discovers a message in Hieroglyphics, Nancy darts over to translate it—into French by way of Swahili. If her car overheats, Nancy purchases a new thermostat and installs it herself, substituting roadside sticks and rocks for more conventional tools. If Nancy’s slacks rip while she’s camping on a mountainside, she whips out her sewing kit and stitches up a pair of new pants from tent cloth. OK, so maybe these are exaggerations of Nancy’s prowess, but not by much.
- Both book series were considered groundbreaking. Mary Hill Arbuthnot considers the publication of Little House in the Big Woods to be a milestone in children’s literature. She writes, “Stories about the west were a staple of the abhorred series books; the Little House books benefited from children’s fascination with the setting, but turned the west into more than a backdrop for predictable dramas of good and evil.” Many, many readers and critics have seen Nancy Drew as groundbreaking as well, a feminist heroine who transformed the visions of countless girls, providing a model of independence and freedom.
- Neither Nancy Drew nor young Laura were writers, but Nancy Drew’s persistence in tracking down clues and finding solutions mimics the research and creative process; Laura, describing the world for her blind sister, hones her descriptive powers and grapples with the complications of language and vision. Both characters inspired many young readers to become writers.
- Both heroines and series have proven inspirational to generations of readers from all sorts of backgrounds and across political spectrums. A Wickipedia entry cites biographies and articles in which prominent women claim Nancy Drew as an influence, including Sandra Day O’Connor, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Laura Bush. Passionate fans of Laura Ingalls Wilder from all walks of life and political positions: conservative and liberal, living history interpreters and homeschoolers and scholars, gather ever two years at a combination fan and academic conference, Laurapalooza, to talk about the wide-ranging influence of her books.