“Miss Vesper Holly is the only Philadelphian of my acquaintance to own a volcano. I can think of no one better suited to deal with explosive real estate. Despite her accomplishments in languages, art, music, science, and mathematics, the dear girl finds eruptions and other nerve-shattering events irresistibly magnetic.”
Vesper Holly and her delightful guardian/lapdog Brinnie are back at it, about a year after their adventures in The Illyrian Adventure – based on plot descriptions I’ve read of the next few Vesper books, she seems to age one year in each installment, so it’s nice to know Lloyd Alexander won’t force his heroine to remain a preternaturally-gifted sixteen-year-old forever. Anyway, the action kicks off when Vesper, still sorting through the mess of papers her father left after his death, finds that she is the owner of a large parcel of land in El Dorado, a made-up country in Central America. Her father won the land in a poker game, and it includes a volcano that everyone assures each other is extinct and most certainly won’t explode at the climax of the plot. Vesper and Brinnie are invited to El Dorado by Alain de Rochefort, a man with mysterious motives. Once they arrive, Vesper and Brinnie learn two important things: first, de Rochefort plans to build a canal through the El Dorado jungle, right through Vesper’s land; and there’s a local tribe, the Chiricas, who will be displaced by the construction of the canal and are fighting it. The conflict is similar to the one we saw in The Illyrian Adventure: Vesper is thrown into a conflict between a country’s native people and the foreign interlopers, and everything has to be resolved very neatly and with minimal bloodshed because this is a book for ten-year-olds. Vesper continues to delight in this book, maintaining a healthy skepticism of the plan to industrialize El Dorado at the expense of the native tribes, and continuing to be the most capable person in the book. Her best moment, when she snaps at an opponent, “Don’t quote Rosseau at me. When it comes to women, he’s full of beans,” is fantastic and excuses every bit of her improbably wealth of knowledge. More these moments in later books, please.
The book also brings back Vesper’s personal Moriarty, Dr. Helvitius. We have three more books to go, and Helvitius is already presenting a problem. He wants Vesper dead, but Lloyd Alexander can’t let someone put a gun to his heroine’s head and pull the trigger, even though Helvitius has plenty of opportunities to do so. So instead, Helvitius spends a good portion of this book putting Vesper and Brinnie in life-threatening situations, which they escape, and Alexander’s justification for this good luck is that Helvitius is actually toying with our heroine, and wants her to escape multiple times so he can draw things out. This is fine for one book, but with Helvitius poised to become a recurring villain, I worry that soon Alexander will have to answer why his villain doesn’t just shoot Vesper already, and that he won’t be able to come up with a satisfying solution. Hopefully Helvitius sits the next few books out.
Another concern surrounding the Vesper books: there’s a weird blend of anti- and pro-colonialism messages that are constantly at war here. In two books now, we’ve seen Vesper jet into a country on the brink of civil war, and solve everything forever with a simple solution. It’s very white-savior-ish, and the solutions she presents are so simplistic I can’t believe they’d be successful for more than six months. I understand that this book is aimed at children, but maybe shrink the conflict down a little? Vesper doesn’t need to breeze in and avert cultural genocide in every single story. This time it’s particularly uncomfortable, first because while Vesper is exploring the jungle near the Chirican village, she finds an oil reserve. Like, an entire fucking lake of oil, and she’s just like, that’s interesting! Onward with our adventure, Brinnie!
Yeah, good luck keeping the indigenous tribes safe when there’s oil on their land, dear. You thought it was bad that someone wanted to build a canal through the jungle? Those tribes are going to be wiped out as soon as someone realizes there are a bunch of poor brown people sitting on a gold mine.
And Vesper continues her proud tradition of smashing her way into a culture she has never interacted with before – she hasn’t been around the Chiricans for longer than fifteen minutes before she starts demanding that they change their laws and traditions, particularly where women are concerned. Look, I’m all in favor of opening a can of feminist whoop-ass on some fools, but some tact might be nice. Also there’s a supremely uncomfortable moment at the end, when Vesper is outlining all the ways she’s going to save this tribe of people she met three fucking days ago, and Vesper tells the Chiricans, “You have a new custom, that’s all. …After a little while, it will be an old custom. You’ll even start to like it.” Which, frankly, might as well be the official slogan of colonialism.
The Vesper Holly books aren’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination. Vesper is a complicated and often problematic heroine, but I’m still enjoying her adventures immensely. She’s the hero that little girls deserve, but not the one they need right now. She’s a loud guardian. A careless protector. A dark knight.
(confession: that last bit might have been the wine talking. the point is: Vesper Holly, fuck yeah.)
Verdict: three out of five stars