OSKALOOSA — A juvenile girl gumshoe with titian hair has graced the pages of over 175 novels. Her natural derring-do is reminiscent of her originating author, Mildred Augustine Wirt Benson.
At a recent presentation of ‘Nancy Drew: Iowa’s Heroine to the World,’ by Humanities Iowa, sponsored by Friends of Oskaloosa Public Library, teacher and author Barbara Lounsberry delved into the history of Mildred Augustin Wirt Benson.
Lounsberry said she grew up in Iowa and if she had known an Iowa woman wrote 23 of the first 30 Nancy Drew volumes, it might have encouraged her and other Iowa women “no end in terms of the possibilities for female Iowans.”
“You see, there is no Carolyn Keene. Carolyn Keene was the pen name for Mildred Augustine and her successors who wrote the actual volumes,” she said. “All had to sign contracts of secrecy and this excessive secrecy robbed Mildred Augustine of recognition for her important contribution to young girls’ reading, but to American popular culture as well.”
Lounsberry said she is trying to remedy this lack of recognition.
I am here to restore Mildred Augustine and Nancy Drew to as inspiring examples of Iowa character and Iowa lives,” she said.
Nancy Drew and Mildred Augustine share more than a few things in common.
“Like Nancy Drew, Mildred Augustine had brains and daring,” Lounsberry said. “She started out as an academic pioneer. She was the first woman to earn a bachelor’s degree from the University of Iowa School of Journalism – and this was 1926 – she was the first person, male or female to earn a master’s degree from Iowa’s journalism school.”
Augustine, like her most famous character, was an excellent swimmer, Lounsberry said.
“When Augustine wrote the third Nancy Drew mystery, ‘The Bungalow Mystery’ in 1930, she was living in Iowa City and was a swimming instructor,” she said. “In an University of Iowa alumni magazine article, Mildred actually beat out men in diving for the diving team at the University of Iowa.”
In the 1930s, Lounsberry said, Augustine, like British author Agatha Christie, was fascinated with archaeology.
“Mildred Augustine learned to fly her own airplane when she got tired of hiring bush pilots to fly her into remote archaeological digs. Augustine flew her own Piper Cherokee plane,” she said. “In fact, she had six different pilot’s licenses, including one for sea planing, which appears in volume 14, ‘The Mystery of the Whispering Statue.’”
While Augustine was on an archaeological dig in Guatamala, she was kidnapped — itself not an unusual theme in the Nancy Drew stories — and like Nancy, escaped.
Lounsberry said over the decades, books for slightly older audiences have been written – the ‘Nancy Drew on Campus’ series; as well as Nancy Drew books for beginning readers.
“So from the moment you can read,” Lounsberry said, “you can read Nancy Drew.”
What is the secret of Nancy Drew’s enduring appeal, Lounsberry asked.
“Why has she flourished while other series heroines like Cherry [Ames] and Vicki [Barr] have faded into obscurity? Well, let me quickly suggest two theories,” she said. “In the first place, Nancy Drew was a briliant response to her time: The Great Depression.”
Lounsberry said Nancy’s role in the mysteries can be likened to that of a female Robin Hood.
“[She’s] restoring inheritances and other lost items to worthy people in distress. No doubt, this is how many of Nancy’s readers felt in the 1930s, that they were worthy people in distress who had lost their rightful inheritances, like their bank accounts,” she said. “In many of these early mysteries, Nancy, like Robin Hood, works to redistribute the wealth from the undeserving rich to the deserving poor.”
Augustine deserves sole credit, Lounsberery said, for the “second stroke of brilliance that led to Nancy’s popularity.”
“In the 1930s, as you undoubtedly know, girls and women didn’t have as many roles open to them as they do today. Augustine’s genius was to make Nancy Drew a blend of the three acceptable roles at that time. You could be the beautiful charmer, if you could pull it off; or maybe you were the outdoor girl or the New England brain,” she said. “Nancy was pretty, she was athletic, the outdoor girl and she was smart. She had it all.”
Managing Editor Angie Holland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @OskyAngie.