“…Sir, this archvillain has attempted to destroy us by dynamite bombs, by living burial, by exposure to the cruelest mental torture. He has even sought to exterminate us by means of an exploding sausage. That, sir, has been the nature of our relationship with Dr. Helvitius.”
Though [President] Grant had been immersed in politics for the past eight years, he was shocked by such ruthlessness.
After four adventures that had flung Vesper Holly and her faithful, long suffering companion Professor Brinton Garrett (or Brinnie) all over the world, for their fifth adventure author Lloyd Alexander decided to let them safely relax in their home city of Philadelphia, if by “safely” you mean “be threatened by violence, kidnapping and things blowing up” and by “relax” you mean “rescue kidnap victims and prevent a major political crisis.” Then again, this being Brinnie and Vesper Holly, this sorta IS their form of relaxation, doubtless why they eagerly jump aboard The Philadelphia Adventure.
Though to be fair, this time, they are sorta dragged into it, partly by no less a personage than President Ulysses S. Grant, who may have been able to defeat Robert E. Lee and the Confederate Army, but is, alas, no match for Vesper Holly’s nemesis, the evil Dr. Helvitius. This time, the would be world dictator and lover of luxury residences and occasional artists has decided to kidnap two children in order to gain control of Brazilian trade and eventually take over all of South America and THEN THE WORLD. Really he needs to get together with Pinky and the Brain. It might go better.
Anyway. The kidnap victims are the children of friends of Pedro II of Brazil, which kinda explains why Pedro and Ulysses S. Grant are involved at all: Pedro, because the children were travelling with him, and Ulysses S. Grant because the kidnapping occurred on U.S. soil—and it is fairly clear that this is just the start of Helvitius’s Dire Plans. Indeed, as Vesper and Brinnie soon learn, to their horror, the Evil Dr. Helvitius plans to ALSO assassinate the leaders of the United States—taking advantage of a little gathering called the Centennial Exposition, held in Philadelphia in 1876 to celebrate the first one hundred years of United States history and the little fact that the country was still a country post the Civil War.
The Centennial Exposition, like Ulysses S. Grant and Emperor Don Pedro II of Brazil, but unlike pretty much everything else in the previous Vesper Holly books, is an actual plot point pulled from history. I suppose Alexander felt that having decided to use the real historical setting of 19th century Pennsylvania as a background, he also had to use real historical people as characters, although the two kidnap victims and all of the bad guys are completely fictional.
It doesn’t quite work. Granted, the previous books were meant to at least echo actual historical events, thus the little factoids and references to real people, but Alexander never had to create the actual real people, allowing his imagination to flow.
Alas, I have to say that the depiction of Ulysses S. Grant just falls flat on the page, as does that of Dom Pedro. It’s not that either are particularly inaccurate depictions, just that the need to stay relatively close to history seems to restrict Alexander’s imagination. And other bits just feel wrong: I mean, yes, Helvitius is very very very evil and all that—but Grant went through the hell of the Civil War; Dom Pedro had to deal with almost continual crises throughout South America, so their shock and horror at Dr. Helvitius just feels off. Even Alexander’s ironic asides, in the narration of Brinnie, don’t quite work here. And neither character is particularly funny. Well, they probably weren’t in real life either, but in a book striving to be amusing, this rather stands out.
Fortunately, Alexander has something else to offer: new character Weed, a young man about Vesper’s age with a strong interest in the classics, and in particular ancient civilizations in Crete, and in particular, translating the languages of the ancient civilizations of Crete. Weed is, of course, is a nickname, but given that the young man’s full name is Tobias Wistar Passavant, I can only applaud Alexander for sticking with Weed. Despite several amiable qualities, Weed does manage to get under Brinnie’s skin, more than once; a propensity to quote Shakespeare and Virgil at tense intervals can irk people more mild mannered than Brinnie. But for all his apparent absent-mindedness, Weed is just intelligent and practical enough to come to the rescue a few times—even if takes Vesper, of course, to save the day in the end.
For all that Weed seems to have Romantic Interest written all over him—as Brinnie notes, not only do Weed and Vesper get along suspiciously well and have suspiciously similar interests, and none of us can think of a good reason why Vesper would let him live in her house otherwise—the book has surprisingly little romance, even by the standards of Alexander books, not really noted for explicit romance. I was expecting more by the end—a proposal, a stronger hint of interest, something—not, hey, the whole gang including the guardians who are kinda going to be obstacles to the whole romance thing should go off to Crete now. Oh well.
Admittedly, part of the problem is a complete lack of time: as with the other books, The Philadelphia Adventure is a fast paced book, going from confrontation to narrow escape to confrontation to narrow escape to brief moment of sleep and snacks to narrow escape again, so the characters really don’t have time for romance. Especially when their author has decided to make them walk through his childhood home, telling jokes like this one:
[President] Grant shrugged. “Let them. From what I’ve heard of the place, who’s going to believe anybody from Aronimink?”
Well, Mr. Lloyd Alexander formerly of Aronimink, if you will insist on these improbable plots….
Brinnie also insists on comparing the mountains of Alexander’s old home to his most strenuous trip ever—well, physically strenuous—to Jedera—not because the two places were at all alike, but because they are equally, as he puts it, spiteful, with the Haggar Mountains completely devoid of life and the Drexel area having way way way too much life, by which Alexander means insects, brambles, and garter snakes. Anyone who has walked in the area will find themselves agreeing. But it also serves as a nice nod to the reality that Alexander’s early daydreams of adventure and wild romance were shaped here, in mountains that might not have, as he admits, exactly competed with the Rockies, much less the Himalayans. But they did inspire him to think of other worlds, other adventures, and even allowed him to think that some adventures, at least, could happen right there in insect-filled Pennsylvania.
But if these sections glow with very real memories, and if the book is generally more amusing than its predecessor, it still seems to lack something: wonder, perhaps, or the completely over the top moments of previous books in the series. Not that this book exactly lacks over the top moments—the first confrontation with Dr. Helvitius, the run in with the increasingly and understandably angry Quakers, and the final near explosion at the Centennial Exposition being just three of them—but they seem somewhat muted here. Vesper, too, seems more thoughtful, less impetuous. Understandable, given that she’s now older, and that Dr. Helvitius knows her better, but it does rob the book of some of the fun.
Perhaps Alexander felt the same, or perhaps, knowing that he had now given readers a hint of Vesper’s future with the Weed, and knowing that Vesper had now reached an age where it would be slightly harder for young readers to identify with her, he felt he could leave the series. For whatever reason, he did, returning to his fantasy worlds for several more years before returning to give Vesper a final sendoff in The Xanadu Adventure—which we’ll look at after seeing the intervening books.
Mari Ness shares Lloyd Alexander’s opinion that the insect life of Pennsylvania should be less active and ubiquitous. She currently lives in central Florida, which is not necessarily an improvement on the insect front.