Nancy Drew books

The Middle Distance 3.1.13: I Spy

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Photo by Sean Cayton

When I was 9, I decided to be a spy. This was not what I wanted to be when I grew up, but right then and there, in my sleepy, southern Kentucky hometown where it seemed nothing ever happened except in books.

This was 1964, and the girls who inspired me were not rebels like Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet of Harriet the Spy. I wouldn’t have known what to think of an edgy sixth-grade girl roaming the streets of New York City, notebook in hand and attitude intact. The girls who inspired me were milder, more traditional feminine role models from the pages of mass-market young adult serial novels: Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden and Donna Parker.

Of these, Nancy Drew was the best known and most glamorous. Kentucky author Bobbie Ann Mason in her book Girl Sleuth described Nancy as “immaculate and [as] self-possessed as a Miss America on tour. She is as cool as Mata Hari and as sweet as Betty Crocker.” I couldn’t quite identify with Nancy who played golf and tennis expertly, rode horses, zipped around country roads in a vintage roadster and was comfortable sipping tea with the local gentry.

Trixie Belden appealed to me more, an all-American girl who hailed from Crabapple Farm in rural New York. Trixie did chores. She took care of her little brother. She was short, a freckled strawberry blonde with unruly hair. Together, she and her friend Honey Wheeler — sleeker, taller, and lonelier — dreamed of forming the Belden-Wheeler Detective Agency, and developed their skills spying on neighbors and friends, solving minor mysteries in settings I could picture — a cave, a farmhouse, an old mill.

Even more appealing to me, though certainly the most mundane, was Donna Parker, an all-around good girl who worked on the school newspaper, whose fiery best friend, redhead Ricky West, provided drama and counter-balance. Donna’s adventures took place at a summer camp on a lake, at a mysterious house in the woods. I grew to love her in the volume in which her parents went abroad but were not able to take the kids along, thus leaving Donna and her brother behind in the care of a neighbor. From the point of view of the middle girl in a four-child, two-parent family, nothing sounded more liberating than this.

When my best friend Lynn Fly and I became spies, we called ourselves the Parker Twins Detective Agency. We made a business flyer advertising our services. We synchronized our wind-up wristwatches, and sent code messages to each other across our fourth-grade classroom, decoding with pencil and eraser. In the afternoons, we experimented with invisible ink made of lemon juice, the message revealed by holding the paper over a hot light bulb. We filched Lynn’s brother Johnny’s walkie-talkie set and practiced communicating around corners and through walls.

I’m not sure what we were looking for. We made up jobs in anticipation of one day having a real one. We longed not so much for adventure as for there to be mystery in our lives. We wanted to discover people’s secrets.

We convinced our friend Melissa to let us come over to her house to spy on her teenaged sister. Cherry teased her hair and went out with boys and wore frosted lipstick and left her bras to dry on the towel rack in the bathroom — surely she must have secrets waiting to be discovered. Lynn and I spent several afternoons stalking her with no results until, finally, Cherry blew our cover, telling us to scram before she told our mothers we’d been spying on her.

We were deflated but not defeated. That night, in the early evening, we raced from tree to shrub, across the open back yards of Lynn’s neighbors’ houses to peek into the sliding glass doors of their family rooms. When the next-door neighbors’ giant Dobermans leapt out from the shadows on their chains, snarling like lions, we retreated to Lynn’s house, breathless.

Before going to bed, we spied on the Flys — Lynn’s brother Johnny, her mother and her father. Lynn followed Johnny into the garage where he practiced drums, and I slunk across the living room floor to the door frame of the kitchen. I peeked around the corner and there were Lynn’s parents, smiling at each other in a close embrace. Right by the kitchen cabinets, they kissed like movie stars, his hand in her hair, her hand across his broad back. Thrilled, I crept to Lynn’s room and made notes beneath the bed sheet we’d fashioned into a tent. My career as a spy had reached its pinnacle.

Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.

 

4 Responses to The Middle Distance 3/1/13: I Spy

  1. Tim Boddington says:

    Crimes and misdemeanors, very little crime, mostly misdemeanors. A good day’s work. Thanks for the beautiful image of loving embrace.

  2. Dotti Richardson says:

    This reminds me so much of something that I did in the sixth grade. My friends and I decided we wanted to help the FBI. We formed a club and actually had meetings. Can’t remember what we did at those meeting except eat snacks that our mothers made. We sent a letter to J.Edgar Hoover to let him know that we were very interested in helping the FBI. We actually got a letter back from J. Edgar Hoover! Sure wish I had kept that letter.
    Loved your story, as I always do.

  3. Cate Noyes Boddington says:

    Oh what a wonderful piece! I remember paying spy so well! Thanks for taking me back to a thrilling time!

  4. Dixie Cole says:

    Lovely! Thanks, for this Katherine, once again touching and real.

News

Meredith Rizzo/NPR
April 22, 2017 | NPR · The science community feels threatened under the current administration. Researchers, educators and activists took to the nation’s capital to stress that cuts to scientific funding affect us all.
 

April 22, 2017 | NPR · Chicago City Clerk Anna Valencia talks about the city of Chicago’s new municipal ID cards which will be accessible to residents who lack documentation for living there.
 

April 22, 2017 | WABE · Civil rights groups are suing Georgia’s secretary of state over voter registration rules that would prevent new voters from taking part in the state’s special congressional election.
 

Arts & Life

HBO
April 22, 2017 | NPR · The actress plays a young African-American woman whose cells, which were taken without her knowledge or consent, went on to become “immortal.”
 

Courtesy of Penguin Random House
April 22, 2017 | NPR · In 1978, Garten left her government job and bought a specialty food store in the Hamptons. That store grew into a career, a series of cookbooks and a popular show on the Food Network.
 

April 22, 2017 | NPR · Speeches in book form are a reliable cash cow for publishers, and tend to fall into the “last minute gift idea” category. But David McCullough’s new The American Spirit is a happy exception.
 

Music

Getty Images
April 22, 2017 | NPR · As a teenager, the Sleater-Kinney guitarist’s local record shop, Rubato Records, became the site of an awakening. “I felt like I had discovered a treasure chest,” she says, “and I dove in.”
 

Courtesy of the artist
April 22, 2017 | NPR · The Canadian-based Cuban singer is a deep thinker with a flair for catchy melodies. His new single is just the tip of the iceberg of an upcoming album full of creativity and passion.
 

Getty Images
April 22, 2017 | NPR · The prolific composer performs on piano, horn and a variety of flutes and whistles for this 1991 session.
 

Get the KRCC iPhone App

The Writer's Almanac

Radiolab