Book Reviews

Book Review: The Secret of Red Gate Farm – Nancy Drew Battles a Strange Cult

I’ve noticed that the better Nancy Drew books seem to be when she manages to get away from the sheltered world of her hometown of River Heights. When she is out on her own with her friends it doesn’t seem as if she is one-upping the adults all over the place. Too often, it seems her father exists solely for the purpose of providing an authority figure (and a source of income, although this angle is rarely discussed) and someone who’s at home worrying about her. Her phone calls with him usually seem to end with him cautioning her to be careful, which she basically ignores less than a page or two later.

Of all the books I’ve read so far in the Nancy Drew series, The Secret of Red Gate Farm is probably the strangest. There are so many moments that left me scratching my head that I hardly know where to begin.

Nancy is on the hunt for another mystery to solve in this sixth book in the series about a female amateur detective. Originally written in 1931, it was re-written in 1961 and condensed, although most of the story unfortunately remains the same.

From page one, Nancy and her two friends, George Fayne and Bess Marvin, become immersed in a mystery. The three girls were on a shopping trip to another town where they encountered a woman in a perfume shop who refused to sell Bess the fragrance she wanted. As they are going home on the train, Bess manages to get Nancy to try some of the perfume she purchased at a ridiculous price. Soon afterward, a girl in a nearby seat faints. Nancy makes her way to the water cooler to get the girl some water and is confronted by a strange man who asks Any word from the Chief? When he realizes that Nancy isn’t who he thinks she is, he excuses himself and dashes away.

Meanwhile, the three companions meet the girl who fainted. Her name is Joanne Byrd and she’s come to town in search of a job to help her grandmother pay the mortgage on their farm. While she is there searching for work, she speaks to her grandmother who is thinking of taking a very low offer on the farm. Without enough money for train fare to return, she turns to Nancy who volunteers to drive her back to Red Gate Farm.

This gives Nancy the idea that she, Bess, and George should spend vacation time at Red Gate Farm as boarders. Once they arrive, they learn that Mrs. Byrd has tenants on part of her property. They claim to be a mysterious nature cult and they can often be seen performing ritual-like dances on the hillside in the moonlight.

Like other books, the two stories seem entirely separate at first. However, as the story goes on, it becomes increasingly apparent that they are somehow connected. The pace of the story is excellent, even from an adult standpoint where most of what is about to happen is predictable. From the “tween” standpoint, it’s probably gripping.

Where it fails on a large scale is the story itself. There are many points that just left me wanting to ask the author what she was thinking. It’s generally known that Mildred Benson ghostwrote this part of the series, and it just stands out as so unlike everything else she wrote. It sticks to the formula, but the tale itself is just totally out there. There are so many stupid things Nancy and her friends do that quite frankly, they deserve to get caught. I know from the perspective of a nine to twelve-year-old, she probably seems brave and ballsy, but in several stories, the way she has acted has been foolhardy, and this one is probably the most offensive in that regard.

There are still traits about Nancy’s personality that grate on me. As much as she’s foolhardy, there are other times when she seems annoyingly perfect. When they are almost later for the train, Bess and George are dawdling and Nancy is the one who pushes them, seeing the importance of being on time. It’s a dig that seems to say Nancy is the one who takes something like that seriously while the others don’t take things like this seriously.

The cult wears costumes that are described as being similar to KKK outfits. No kidding – white sheets and pillowcases on people dancing around on the hill surrounding a bonfire. I know with the re-write in 1961 one of the goals was to strip away some of the stereotypes, but this book seems to have trouble doing that. In addition, there’s a character by the name of Yvonne Wong who is often referred to as “oriental”. That might be one of the terms used that isn’t quite as offensive as others, but it’s fallen into disuse. In addition, at one point Nancy states it will be easy to find Yvonne Wong, intimating that she stands out because she’s Asian. This also brings out the fact that Nancy Drew lives in a lily-white affluent world.

Of the books in the series, this is the weakest so far. It’s not due to the formula writing, which I have come to expect. It’s mainly due to the strange take on the entire story with cults and syndicates that seem like organized crime. To put a teenager in the middle of that seems to advocate reckless behavior. In addition, there are a number of points that don’t translate well all these years later. It’s not a book I would select for my daughters to read. If they are reading the entire series, it might provide a good place to have a dialogue about the differences in society over the past few decades.

Previous book in the series (link): The Secret of Shadow Ranch

Next book in the series (link): The Clue in the Diary

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