“I’ll call you ‘jaguar,’ if I may be so bold…”

[Here’s the latest in an ongoing series of reviews of all of Lloyd Alexander’s non-Prydain books. To see all posts in this series, click on the “Lloyd Alexander” tag.]

Yes, that’s the cover of The El Dorado Adventure. Yes, the girl behind the counter at the bookstore gave me a suspicious look when I bought it. That didn’t bother me; what did worry me was that the Vesper Holly adventures would be a chore to read. I was wrong. Published in 1987, this second of six books about the 19th-century teenage adventurer and polymath is a hoot—and further proof of Lloyd Alexander’s knack for writing pure, lighthearted action.

When the wealthy, orphaned Vesper receives a mysterious telegram about some volcano-festooned real estate she inherited from her parents, she puts aside her banjo and her experiments in fractionating hydrocarbons and sails with her bumbling guardian from Philadelphia to El Dorado, “one of a tumble of countries crowding the neck of land between North and South America.” Upon her arrival, she battles a slippery French engineer who plans to build a canal that will flood the last surviving village of the Chiricas, the only local tribe to hold off the Conquistadors. During her stay in El Dorado, Vesper also breaks out of several prisons, repairs a riverboat engine, brings about gender equity among the Chiricas, burns down an opera house, quotes Rousseau and Alfred de Musset from memory, and arranges for the eruption of a dormant volcano—all without the benefit of a formal education.

Of course, Vesper’s preposterous competence is half the fun of the Vesper Holly Adventures; the stuffy narrative voice of her guardian, Dr. Brinton “Brinnie” Garrett, is the other half. Educated but largely uncreative, Brinnie is the classic unreliable narrator, but he never becomes a buffoon, and his Victorian decency is frequently comic. When the evil Dr. Helvitius—Vesper’s nemesis from The Illyrian Adventure and Moriarity to her Holmes—resurfaces in El Dorado, Brinnie is livid. “The fellow is a disgrace to the academic profession,” he huffs, even as he backslides into good-hearted optimism: “Perhaps, I suggested, he might still retain some spark of human decency. He was, I reminder her, an opera lover.”

When Vesper dissuades the Chiricas from initiating a hopeless armed rebellion that would surely cause their extinction, and when Brinnie contemplates pulling the trigger when an evil man lands in his rifle sights, Alexander comes close to reexamining some of his favorite moral questions—but then something blows up, or our heroes get captured, or a new friend or foe emerges from the steamy jungle. I’ve said before that novelists could learn much about lively, concise storytelling from Lloyd Alexander, but the Vesper Holly books—marketed to girls but with something for everyone, even grown-ups—are especially entertaining because they’re such a rarity: short, breezy adventures by an author who’s having the time of his life.

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