You know who this is, right? Yes. It's the person we all want to be. It's the fictional me: the one who has it all under control. Nancy Drew, stand-in for master of the known universe.
In the space of twenty chapters, all of which end with a cliffhanger, she met with trouble, grappled with it, and sent it back into the exile of the impenetrable. The sun emerged from behind the clouds to bathe the world of River Heights in light. At least until the next book. Beginning, middle, end. Contained, and curbed. The first in the series, The Secret of the Old Clock, written by Carolyn Keene (no such person existed, although she continues to write the series, all the way from 1930 to now), gets right down to business in the first sentence: "Nancy Drew, an attractive girl of eighteen, was driving home along a country road in her new, dark-blue convertible." Four short paragraphs later, still on the first page, " . . . she gasped in horror."
My first stay in summer camp, at the outset of which I was miserable with homesickness, and at the end of which I couldn't bear to go home and be separated from my new friends (not to mention the horses), the counselor read out loud to our cabin of girls one chapter every night of a Nancy Drew Mystery Story. It was intolerable: we all groaned when she reached the last line--"The next moment she heard a piercing scream!" was typical--and said, "Lights out." Even though we knew she would get out of every scrape, we didn't know it. We could all imagine ourselves an attractive girl of eighteen. And we all wanted a convertible roadster, and to look dashingly pretty as we drove it. Perhaps growing up, that mysterious passage we longed for so hard it hurt, would provide such things to us.
Later, I was married. Well past Nancy Drew now. Then, they started to come: bizarre panics in which my heart would race, my skin crawl, a terrible fear from nowhere like stones falling, falling on my head without cease. There seemed no remedy. Sometimes I would write in a journal, the words racing too, trying to talk myself out of a deep hole. Whole nights, sitting on the couch in the dark living room, watching the Brooklyn skyline out the window as if its yellow lights might offer some answer. It never did. But one night I found something that helped, Xanax in literary form. An old Nancy Drew (Mystery at the Ski Jump, I have a feeling it was). Suddenly, reading it in the cold hours while around me eight million slept their contented sleeps, everything that was in question ordered itself, fell into categories with neatly typed labels. This will happen, then this, followed by this. There will be a chapter (really!) titled "Happy Finale."
I discovered that reading Nancy Drew made me feel all right. Everything always fell into place, because she had her dad, lawyer Carson Drew, and her pals. She had her roadster, and Ned. She had her slender form and her hair was never out of place, even when she had been blindfolded and dragged into a cupboard (from which she was guaranteed to emerge in the next chapter). She had her wits about her. That which I seemed to lack.
So I borrowed them from her. On a weekend visit to friends' in the country, the sun shining and everyone enjoying themselves, the darkness came over me and I started to sweat, to tremble. Excuse me, I said with a smile I hoped no one could see through; I'm not feeling well. I think I'll go lie down for a minute.
Into the bedroom, draw the curtain. Lie down on the bed, every cell zinging. "Why is this happening to me? What do I do?" the voice inside repeated, in a sort of frenzy. Then my eye fell on the bookshelf across the room: there was a lemon-yellow spine with royal blue type. At that moment the ripcord pulled, and I was pulled back up into space: the chute had deployed and my fall was slowing. Nancy Drew was here. She turned up in the most astonishing places, always at the very last second. That much was assured.
It took an hour to read. And when I rose from the bed, my smile was real. She had put everything to rights. For the time that I was between those covers, I felt as though I would prevail. My fictional self had untied the knots of a fictional misery. How could I be frightened, if Nancy Drew never was? Out I walked, into my own River Heights. I lived there for a little while, until the next mystery hit me from behind. There were over thirty books in the series.