Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Missing Millie Benson - The Secret Case of the Ghostwriter and Journalist

Since I just finished the most recent Nancy Drew book, figured it was only appropriate that I go ahead and read the biography for young readers that was written on the earliest ghostwriter for the Nancy Drew series - Mildred Augustine Wirt Benson.

For those who don't know (and in today's modern age of instant information at our fingertips, I can't imagine anyone not knowing), the author of the Nancy Drew series is not, nor has it ever been, Carolyn Keene.  There is no such person as Carolyn Keene.  Well, there probably are some girls and women with that name, but they never authored a Nancy Drew book.  The "Carolyn Keene" whose name appears on the Nancy Drew (and Dana Girls) mystery stories was simply a pseudonym, created by Edward Stratemeyer so that this children's mystery series could be written by numerous ghostwriters, yet appear to the world at large as being written by one woman.  And the first ghostwriter hired by Stratemeyer for the Nancy Drew series was none other than Millie Benson (although at the time she first wrote the series, she was Mildred Wirt).  As the author of this biography points out, Millie wrote 23 of the first 30 Nancy Drew books that were published (before they were later revised).

Julie K. Rubini presents the story of Millie's life as it centers around her writing and her involvement in the Nancy Drew series.  She provides a number of interesting photos that depict Millie in the various stages of her life, with her parents, her first husband Asa Wirt, her second husband George Benson, and in her career as a journalist.  It was a treat for me to see these photos, some of which I had never seen before, and to get a glimpse of this author's life outside of Nancy Drew.

Rubini mentions a number of high points in Millie's life - from her first published story, to her college life, to her response to Stratemeyer's ad for writers, to her two marriages (and her husbands' deaths), to her career as a journalist, and to her testimony given at the now-famous trial between the publishers of Nancy Drew books.  Rubini interviewed a number of experts, as well as spoke with surviving family members, in her attempt to flesh out Millie's life.  Unfortunately, without all the details, Rubini was left to speculate as to a lot of things that Millie did, the choices she made, the places she visited, and her reasoning for doing the things she did.  These speculations can be easily identified, as Rubini starts them off with phrases such as "Millie had to have been..." or "Millie might have found..." or "Millie must have been..."  So, while the book offers a number of facts about Millie (some well know, some not-so-well known), it also strays into a bit of supposition about the prolific author and journalist.

While the book is about Millie, it does offer some other insightful information.  There is a bit of history on the Stratemeyer Syndicate, its founder Edward, and his daughters, Harriet and Edna, who took over the business when he died just shortly after the Nancy Drew series debuted in 1930.  There is information about the first female flyers and the Powderpuff Derby, as well as the Nancy Drew Conference held in 1993 at the University of Iowa, where Millie was honored for her work.

Rubini clearly put some effort in the book; however, there were a couple of glaring errors that were more than noticeable.  When discussing Edward Stratemeyer and the beginnings of his Syndicate, she references his creation of the Bobbsey Twins in 1904, describing them as "Bert and Nan were twelve years old, Freddie and Flossie were six" (p. 35).  While the twins were these ages in the later, revised editions of the series, when the books were originally written after the turn of the century, they were actually eight years old (Bert and Nan) and four years old (Freddie and Flossie).  Later, when discussing the plot of the first Nancy Drew book, she wrote that it "involved the missing will of a character, Josiah Crowley, that had been stashed secretly by members of the wealthy and cruel Topham family" (p. 50).  This is inaccurate, as it was Josiah himself who hid the will in the clock.  And although this biography is aimed at young readers, I would still have to say that factual inaccuracies such as this should have been caught and corrected before the book saw print - otherwise, misrepresentations may be fostered and furthered by those who look to use this book as any sort of reference material for future writings.

That being said, overall, it was a good, simple read and provided a basic overview of Mildred Benson's life and career.  Now that we've read about this ghostwriter, I wonder when we will see some tales about the other authors who wrote Nancy Drew (such as Harriet Stratemyer Adams herself!)?

RATING:  7 typewriter keys out of 10 for sharing information about an amazing woman whose literary works and career have touched so many.

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