As it turns out, the intrepid and brilliant Miss Vesper Holly, of 19th century Philadelphia, just happens to be the owner of a volcano. I’d be suspicious, but something has to kick off the plot for each Lloyd Alexander book. Alexander handwaves the ownership by explaining that Vesper has inherited the volcano, like the rest of her fortune, from her father, who in turn won it at a poker game. Check your hands carefully, folks, before betting away dormant volcanoes.
Her guardian, Professor Brinton Garrett, more commonly known as Brinnie, is convinced that volcano or no volcano, the property, located in the jungles of central America, is absolutely worthless. But a mysterious telegram convinces Vesper otherwise, and almost as soon as they can pack, the two are off on The El Dorado Adventure.
As it turns out, certain Very Evil People, led, naturally, by the very evil Dr. Helvitius, the villain from the first novel, have Plans for the volcano area. Not only is the area geographically perfect for a canal, but the area also has extensive oil deposits. Even in this pre-automobile era, oil means money. For Vesper, oil also means the opportunity to fake a volcanic eruption, if needed, to drive the Evil Doers away. It’s a breathtaking sort of plan that leaves out two tiny little factors: one, it’s very difficult to fake a volcanic eruption when you are in the clutches of Evil Doers who want you to suffer at an opera (this makes more sense in context), and two, volcanoes kinda do their own thing, even when someone like Miss Vesper Holly is around.
Why is she around? Well, that would be thanks again to Evil Dr. Helvitius. Still smarting from his defeat in the previous book, he has decided to seek his revenge, and has arranged the whole thing. Well, almost the whole thing. Not the bit where Vesper inherited a volcano—that’s just a happy coincidence. But the part where he has enticed Vesper and Brinnie to head to El Dorado. Dr. Helvitius is just evil enough that he doesn’t want to kill them—at least not yet. Instead, like any good Bond villain, he wants to have fun first. Fun, if you are Dr. Helvitius, includes drugging your prisoners, leaving them on a small and not very comfortable island, laughing as they make a raft and almost escape before you catch them again, and locking them beneath an opera house. Dr. Helvitius obviously missed his calling: he should have waited a hundred or so years and become a reality television show producer.
The novel proceeds at the usual breathtaking pace, amusingly narrated by the well intentioned if frequently wrong Professor Garrett, who remains touchingly appalled that anyone with academic credentials and aspirations could be evil. Seriously, Dr. Garrett, how long were you at a university? It also introduces Smiler and Slider, the twins who would return as sidekicks in later Vesper books (they’re very good in a fight) and hints again that others see Vesper as definitely ready for romance, even if Vesper seems to be content with light flirting. And if Brinnie’s habit of making all of the wrong assumptions about people he’s never met remains strong, he also remains surprisingly useful: once again helping with travel arrangements, fighting, and breaking out of prison, and saving people (meaning Vesper) who have fallen down into cracks in the earth after an earthquake. It’s all a lot of fun.
Let me get one of the potential bits of awkwardness out of the way immediately: yes, this is a story about two white people who head to a country which has been unpleasantly colonized by other white people and end up helping to save the day for the natives. Let’s also note that the most articulate native character, who also has the most speaking lines, Acharro, is only half Chiraca; his father is Irish. He speaks excellent English because his Irish father has arranged for an expensive and largely completely unappreciated education in England. Well, Brinnie is appreciative, but he’s quite a snob where academic degrees are concerned. No one else seems to, something in turn understood by Vesper. For all of her willingness to travel with a professor, she has not exactly embraced formal education herself. I’m not exactly sure that “higher education is misguided and pointless when it is not turning you into a Bond villain” is that helpful, especially in a book series where the characters all need a certain knowledge of history and geography to survive, but then again, when the most educated person in the series is Very Evil, I guess that that can turn you against gathering multiple degrees.
But I digress. My point is, on the surface, this could look like a very problematic story indeed. But Alexander undercuts many of these problems, partly through a surprise ending (spoiler: the white people end up getting rescued) and partly by continually challenging the idea of making assumptions based on appearance, as in this scene where a white man is directly and correctly accused of stereotyping nearly every person he has met in the book so far:
“Your mistake is understandable. You find yourself in a remote jungle, amid a tribe of savages. You make certain assumptions about them, forming your opinions in advance, based on your previous experience and what you consider to be logical. Your error, as I said, is quite understandable. It is, however, not excusable.”
Nearly every other assumption Brinnie makes about the Chiricas (and he makes a lot of assumptions) ends up getting knocked down: the poles he takes for religious objects are for playing cricket; the Caymans and Jaguars are not clans or family emblems, but cricket teams; and the beautiful pottery is made not by the men, but by the women. The men, as you have probably gathered by now, are playing cricket. It’s not just Brinnie, either: a significant part of Vesper’s plan goes awry because she has incorrectly assumed that the laws of El Dorado are similar to U.S. laws. They are not, and her failure to understand or even consider this leads her to make a grave mistake.
Indeed, nearly all of the assumptions made by the white people, heroes and villains alike, turn out to be dead wrong. To be fair, some of this is because a number of characters are lying through their teeth, to the point of falsifying data and scientific surveys, but most of this is because they all arrive armed with certain assumptions, which the end of the novel neatly upends. Any ideas of white superiority are further crushed when Brinnie attempts to do a martial arts move he once saw in Hong Kong and completely fails, though to be fair, he’s also dealing with an earthquake and villainy and machine guns and devout wishes that Mr. Gatling had never made any machine guns and just stuck to doing agriculture.
This book also takes a moment to acknowledge a not so small reality that the previous book had lightly skipped over: 19th century sexism. Vesper is continually underestimated because of her gender; the women of the Chiraca have been left out of a governing role:
“Women have no voice in our council,” said Acharro. “It is not our custom.”
“It is not our custom, either,” said Vesper. “When our women try, our men lock them up in jail, poke a tube down their throats and pour food into them if they won’t eat.”
“I know that,” said Acharro. “It is barbarity. We would not do such a thing.”
“We’re not as civilized as you are.” Vesper smiled at him. “Here’s your chance to go us another one better.”
All of this makes the surprise ending that much more funny and satisfying. I would hardly claim that this book does anything new, or insightful with these issues, but it is pointed, and often amusing, and a lot of fun, and far more than you might expect from the surface.
Mari Ness does not own any volcanoes, fake or otherwise. She lives in central Florida.