Growing up in those “tween years” my hero was Nancy Drew. She had a life I dreamed of, driving around in a nice car given to her as a gift from her doting-yet-not-overprotective-of-his-only-child father, Carson Drew (is that a name for an attorney or what). Nancy didn’t need a job nor have much of a care in the way of finances. At the same time, she could get into trouble and call it “sleuthing.” What a deal!
Nancy’s friend Helen Corning brings the mystery of The Hidden Staircase to her friend. It seems Helen’s Aunt Rosemary was recently widowed and returned home to live with her mother at the family home, Twin Elms. Strange things have been happening, such as unexplained shadows and music playing when it shouldn’t be. Helen asks Nancy to figure out just what is going on out there.
Before Nancy gets the chance to see what Helen has for her, a mysterious man stops by the Drew home and warns Nancy that her attorney father is in danger. He tells Nancy not to leave her father’s side. Later on, Nancy learns that the same man is looking to purchase Twin Elms at a very low price. Are the two connected? That’s for Nancy to find out!
The story here has a good deal of character development from the first book in the series, The Secret of the Old Clock. The Hidden Staircase does a lot in the way of explaining who the people are surrounding Nancy, such as the family housekeeper, Hannah Gruen, who is a maternal figure in Nancy’s life. That close relationship is shown quite well here. It also specifically states that Nancy’s mother died when she was three years old. Unlike later novels, Nancy doesn’t have a steady beau. Instead, she goes on a date with Dirk Jackson, a high school tennis champion.
The Hidden Staircase also goes further in establishing Helen Corning’s character while also setting the stage for her to be written out several more books down the road. Helen is three years older than Nancy.
There’s also a bit more information as to the geographical location of Nancy’s fictional hometown of River Heights. Her father intends to return to a nearby town via an overnight sleeper train from Chicago, leading me to believe it’s somewhere in middle America. However, it’s interesting to note that there’s a river with the same name as the river that runs through the town up in Canada.
First published in 1930 and then greatly revised and updated in 1959, The Hidden Staircase is extremely dated in many ways. Helen’s father won’t allow her to announce her engagement until her fiancee is back from overseas. In this day and age of cell phones, the idea that someone would telegraph their plans is pretty inconceivable. However, Nancy is also alarmed when her father apparently does this instead of using the telephone. It also seems strange to imagine a time when you could call the Chief of Police and get a detective posted to patrol your grounds. At the same time, this same Chief of Police allows a teenager to talk to the suspects in a kidnapping case – and then she gets better results than his men!
And then there’s the sexism. Although Nancy can still appeal to those in the 9-12 age group, I’m not sure I would want my daughter really modeling herself after her. Not only is there no real talk of what Nancy’s going to do with her life (my guess would be she’s waiting for her Mrs. degree), but initially what she’s embarking on here seems superficial and silly. Carson Drew is on a case involving a massive railroad deal and local landowners. Nancy’s “case” is a haunted house. I’m not exaggerating – within the first ten pages she talks of giving up a case she had been asked to take when discussing her father potentially being in danger.
I’m also learning that people never used to be alarmists. In The Hidden Staircase at one point a plaster ceiling falls on Nancy and Helen. Nancy gets knocked out, not to mention all the plaster dust they both breathe in. Yet Nancy refuses to even have the doctor called, never mind getting checked out at the hospital for a possible concussion or anything.
What I did notice for the first time here is the great descriptions of the food being eaten. In a day when lunch consists of peanut butter and jelly or cup o’ noodles, reading about the spreads and the care that went into preparing the meals almost makes me long for that time – almost. Sometimes the dishes that were common back then have become lost today. I read about something called “Floating Island” and looked up the recipe – I’ll be making it soon! Yet the author seems to take for granted people will know what that dessert is when they read it.
No one is going to mistake The Hidden Staircase for great literature. However, it’s got the perfect formula to appeal to many 9 to 12-year-olds even now. The style of the book is to their reading level and it flows nicely with enough descriptions to help them understand even with the cultural differences of the time.
My girls have all read the book and enjoyed it, although not the repeated times I did at their age. The story is written to keep their attention and will do that successfully at least one time through. Nancy is a girl who is bold, intelligent, and yet still has class. It certainly has flaws, especially looking back from the perspective of more than sixty years later, but there’s a lot here that’s fun for that age group.
Previous book in the series (link): The Secret of the Old Clock
Next book in the series (link): The Bungalow Mystery