As most of us now know, Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor used to escape the gray surroundings of her childhood in the Bronx in between the glossy yellow covers of Nancy Drew mysteries, a love curiously shared by the other female Supreme Court justices, Sandra Day O'Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Students in my literature classes at John Jay College of Criminal Justice share a background with Judge Sotomayor — they are often first-generation Americans, first-generation college students and passionate Yankees fans. But unlike the judges, not to mention Sen. Jeff Sessions who yesterday cited Nancy Drew's influence on his legal career, their early years were not shaped by the girl sleuth (unless, unbeknownst to me, she's been on YouTube or American Idol).
So I never know how they'll respond to blond, blue-eyed Nancy Drew when I assign her for my "Sisters in Crime" class. Nancy Drew is so white and WASPy, the books should come with a jar of mayo. And of course my students come in, brown eyes rolling, with tales of public humiliation. (My favorites: the varsity basketball player who was spied reading The Secret of the Old Clock on the subway, or the student who saved face by hiding the telltale glossy yellow cover behind Playboy). But they come in having read every word. And doing all the reading is no small thing for these students, who often work full time to support themselves and their families. (Trust me on this: I also teach Dickens.)
Not only do they seem to like Nancy Drew, but they often prefer her to the working-class detectives of color with whom they have much more in common. One might think that the popularity of the new sleuth on the block, Precious Ramotswe of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency books (now on HBO), stems from her being a wise African woman, a good 21st century hero for an era of globalization. But I think they like her because she is a latter-day Nancy Drew. ("Say what?" you say, but think about it: motherless father worshipper, devoted to car, sense of the old morality, small-town community policing, bizarrely patient boyfriend.)
So the simple answer to Nancy Drew's appeal to kids from Bronx housing projects is that Nancy Drew is simple: Good guys and bad guys are easily recognizable; there are no Rockefeller drug laws in River Heights blurring the lines between criminal and victim. Supreme Court justices especially never get the black-and-white cases. For judges like O'Connor, Ginsburg and Sotomayor, the clarity of Nancy-style justice must be a refreshing recollection.
But there's something else. I think Nancy Drew appeals to readers for whom River Heights might as well be Mars because she is free. She is free from poverty (well-off dad), from sex (attractive but not active), from mom (a living example of your more realistic options), from a job (thanks to her amateur status). But what that really boils down to is freedom from definitions. Class, sex, parents, jobs all define you, and definitions mark limits. Right and wrong are clearly defined in Nancy's world, but Nancy herself is not.
So while the talking heads speculate ad absurdum about how defined a Justice Sotomayor would be by her "wise Latina woman" identity, perhaps her inner child is taking refuge, just like my students do, behind a glossy yellow cover in a girl free from the limits of definitions.