Ginger-haired, green-eyed, and very determined, 16-year-old Vesper Holly is ready for anything, especially an adventure. Possessing “the digestive talents of a goat and the mind of a chess master. . . . She is familiar with half a dozen languages and can swear fluently in all of them.” Not that she does swear –not in the least! As readers will discover, Vesper is far too intelligent and unflappable for such language.
Readers are introduced to Vesper Holly in The Illyrian Adventure. The adventure is told from the perspective of Vesper’s newly-appointed guardian, Professor Brinson Garrett. “Brinnie,” as Vesper instantly dubs the professor, was friends with Vesper’s father, the late Dr. Holly. Dr. Holly, readers learn, was “an intrepid explorer, a brilliant archeologist, a daring adventurer –and a disaster at keeping his personal business in order.”
From this “disaster” of unfinished personal business, spring the first three of Vesper Holly’s adventures. Each of these adventures occurs in a fictional geographic location and is loosely connected to historical, late 19th century events. In each story, Vesper plunges wholeheartedly into adventures, dragging Brinnie along in her wake.
Intensely fond of Vesper, Brinnie is a respectable, practical, and very good guardian. Quite patriotic to America in general, and Philadelphia in particular, he is admittedly rather bumbling. As a result, his narration keeps the tone of the series light-hearted.
Readers will soon realize that despite kidnappings, bandits, burglars, exploding sausages, and any number of hair-raising escapes from nefarious villains, Vesper and Brinnie will always survive to the story’s end.
With non-stop adventure and a conversational, tongue-in-cheek style, this series is perfect for middle-grade readers and older readers, too! Reading through several of the books again, I found myself constantly chuckling at different sentences and incidents due to Brinnie’s engaging and often humorous narration.
Describing a South American river, Brinnie notes that,
Apart from mosquitoes and furry spiders, tigres in the undergrowth, alligators pretending to bask innocently in the shallows, anacondas and other serpents, the Culebra must be one of the most beautiful rivers in the world . . .
Plucky and possessing infinite amounts of determination and resourcefulness, Vesper is an unquestionably feminine character, yet she is not silly. According to Brinnie, “Vesper has, to my certain knowledge, seldom blushed and never simpered.” For adventure-loving middle-grade girls, this is not a series to miss! It was certainly one of my favorite series at that age.
As a parental aside, the covers of this series vary from excellent, with at least two done by Trina Schart Hyman, to downright trashy. Do not let the cover distract you from the content! Vesper Holly is a practical, no-nonsense young woman, and these stories, while spiced with the romance of good adventure and faraway places, do not contain anything beside a few appropriate hints at real romance, EXCEPT for one book.
Published much later than the original series, The Xanadu Adventure is written in the same vein as the first five books, but its content is lacking. For one thing, Brinnie actually swears at one time. This is something that never, to my knowledge and memory, occured in the other books. Second, more emphasis is placed on a new character, a young scholar introduced in The Philadelphia Adventure than on Vesper herself. While there is little real romance, the story itself is not as exciting and rather anticlimactic. Also, it is several times hinted in a dangerous situation that the ladies’ honor might be at stake which, considering the target audience, is completely inappropriate. While a younger reader might miss these allusions, I would recommend only reading the first five books in the series, especially since the ending of The Philadelphia Adventure provides a satisfying completion to the many adventures of Vesper Holly.
Through Vesper Holly, Lloyd Alexander shows his talent for creating interesting, intelligent female characters. (Eilonwy in the Prydain Chronicles is another excellent example!) As Brinnie fondly observes of Vesper:
There are limits to human capabilities and willpower. Still, I am not certain how far those limits apply to Vesper. If at all.