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I don’t believe I know any girl or woman who didn’t grow up reading Nancy Drew.  Just mention her name and a whole host of other names pops into one’s mind–her father, Carson Drew; her housekeeper, Hannah Gruen; her two best friends, Bess Marvin and George Fayne; and her sometimes boyfriend, Ned Nickerson.

I started reading the series when I was about nine or ten.  As I remember it, I started with the first one, The Secret of the Old Clock, and continued on, in no particular order, until The Ringmaster’s Secret.  That was number 31, and at that point I had “outgrown” the series.

But I never forgot it, and I think I can still tell you the plots of most, if not all, of the books.  And I certainly remember which were my favorites.  Everything I know about Gypsies (Roma) I learned from The Clue in the Jewel Box; everything I know about campanology I learned from The Mystery of the Tolling Bell. Hmm, I wonder if the people writing the series under the name Carolyn Keene got their facts straight.

What brought this to mind was the the book my book club is currently reading, Infidel. It’s the fascinating memoir of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s journey from her homeland in Somalia to Kenya and Ethiopia, then her flight to Holland to avoid living with the husband her father had chosen for her over her objections, and finally to the United States.

Her education in Africa was sporadic, learning a different language in each country, sometimes being home-schooled and sometimes going to all-girls or co-ed Muslim schools, depending on where she lived.  It was in Nairobi that Ms. Ali discovered Nancy Drew and “the stories of pluck and independence.” I imagine the novels must have seemed like fairy tales, with Nancy dressed in Western clothes, driving her own car, traveling by herself, and generally doing what she pleased.  This was a life so different from the life that the young Ayaan saw all around her that it would have seemed incredible.  But something in these books touched her and awakened a curiosity about the world outside the one she knew.

This is what I find wonderful about reading in general and mysteries in particular.  My own life has very little in common with Agatha Christie’s English villages, Alexander McCall Smith’s Botswana, or Colin Cotterill’s war-torn Laos.  But reading takes me to all these places and gives me a glimpse of lives lived there. And I feel richer for it.


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