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Book Review

The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo by Catherine Johnson has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine.

Positive Elements

Spiritual Content

Sexual Content

Violent Content

Crude or Profane Language

Drug and Alcohol Content

Other Negative Elements


Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

In April, 1819, on the Bristol road, two men rape Mary Willcox. She has already lost everything, including her self-respect, the man she loved and a baby named Solomon. When villagers find the battered, exhausted young woman, they bring her to an inn.

A bored heiress named Cassandra Worrall hears the commotion and joins the others in asking her questions. Mary has dark skin and won’t speak, so they believe she’s a foreigner who can’t understand them. Her poise, despite her disheveled condition, convinces some she may even be royalty.

Cassandra knows her mother will be fascinated by this oddity of a girl, so she takes Mary to their estate, Knole Park House. Cassandra, her mother and others in their circle are fascinated by the houseguest. They speculate endlessly, while Mary Willcox sheds her old identity and reinvents herself as Princess Caraboo.

Some, including Cassandra’s father, are skeptical about the new arrival. The Worrall women bring in experts to examine the princess’s speech and writing. One professor hooks wires to her head to read her brain waves. Captain Palmer, an old sailor with a penchant for alcohol and telling tales, claims he can understand her language. He creates an elaborate story about her past and how she was kidnapped from her homeland but escaped her captors.

Cassandra’s brother, Fred, returns home from his schooling and travels. He and his friend Edmund spend much of their time in the bars and brothels. He initially scoffs when he meets Princess Caraboo, believing her to be a phony. Cassandra and her mother continue to make Caraboo their pet, showing her off to society friends and trying to teach her to communicate with them. Caraboo wears short skirts for hunting, often kills small animals for food and creates a language and rituals for herself.

Caraboo watches Cassandra toy with the affections of a laborer named Will. The young man vows to leave for America to make his fortune so he can support Cassandra. When Cassandra becomes bored with him, she begins flirting with Edmund. Caraboo senses Fred is a philanderer, so she decides she will seduce him and break his heart to teach him a lesson. Meanwhile, Captain Palmer corners Caraboo and says he knows she’s pulling a scam. He threatens her and says he will keep her secret, but only if she will travel with him and perform in side shows.

As more and more people come to interview, paint portraits or simply gawk at Princess Caraboo, Mary wonders how long she can keep up her game. She fears Captain Palmer and wants to escape him, and she ponders trying to go to America. When she finally decides to leave Knole Park House for good, she finds herself in a street where Fred is being attacked by thugs.

She knows she can’t leave him to die, so she gets him to a doctor. She speaks to Fred in her native English to tell him she’s leaving. Fred is angry at having been fooled and calls for a constable. When he considers the scandal this discovery could bring to his family, he conditionally agrees to let Mary go. She must stay in character for a few more days and attend the party his mother has been planning.

Fred watches at the party as aristocrats offer their conjectures about Caraboo and pretend to be important. He realizes Caraboo is no more a liar or phony than anyone else. Fred and Caraboo talk, and she explains she never set out to hurt or steal from anyone. She simply wanted to be someone other than Mary Willcox.

The night after the party, Captain Palmer takes some of Mrs. Worrall’s jewels and tells Caraboo they’re leaving. Fred arrives just as Caraboo pushes the captain off the roof to his death. Fred knows Caraboo needs to make her escape immediately. Everyone will think she fled because she was upset after witnessing the captain’s death. Fred helps her get out of town, and she makes her way to New York. A year later, after Caraboo has established herself as a governess, Fred comes to America and asks her to start a new life with him.

Christian Beliefs

Mary prays as she’s being attacked on the road. She doesn’t expect much help because the Lord doesn’t look kindly on girls like her. Her previous prayers had profited her nothing, so she assumes God thinks she doesn’t deserve anything better. She says she doesn’t imagine St. Peter would admit her to heaven after all that’s happened to her, but hell couldn’t be any worse than this world.

Mary remembers having won prizes at the Primitive Baptist Church as a child for her knowledge of the Scriptures. Cassandra makes every oath she knows and prays God will make Will disappear so she doesn’t have to deal with him. Mary tells Fred the Bible says people are to blame for everything.

Other Belief Systems


Authority Roles

Several characters claim to be experts who can determine Caraboo’s origins and identity. None of them have any legitimate knowledge or methodology, and most fabricate stories to save face. Mrs. Worrall takes Caraboo in because she’s bored and loves having something thrilling and mysterious to parade before others.


The Lord’s name is used in vain. Ars-, t-t, h---, b--stard, d--n and b--ch appear. Two men rape Mary on the road. Fred recalls the sickening thump he heard when a prostitute threw herself out a window.


Fred and Edmund visit a gentleman’s club they frequent. The text describes the women there in various states of undress. The young men speak at length about the women with whom they’ve had sex and how cheaply they can have their desires fulfilled.

Fred pays to sleep with a new girl who is too squeamish to have sex with him. He treats her like an object, repeatedly failing to call her by her correct name. He thinks she needs to understand that this job is her lot in life, and he knows he can’t tell Edmond he didn’t have sex with the woman.

While the new girl is still naked in bed, one of Fred’s regular partners enters the room. She’s in love with Fred and wants him to buy her out of this lifestyle. She lies and tells him she’s pregnant with his child. She threatens to kill herself, like another prostitute did recently, by throwing herself out a window.

Mary had been in love with a man who got her pregnant. She then discovered he’d married another woman. Fred and Edmund leer at most women, including Caraboo. Cassandra emerges from a talk with Will, and Caraboo thinks she looks like she’s been flat on her back in the hay.

Cassandra kisses Will several times. The captain puts his hand on Caraboo’s thigh, and she slaps it away. Caraboo seduces Fred.

Discussion Topics

Additional Comments/Notes

Alcohol: Captain Palmer is an alcoholic and frequently appears drunk.

Historical note: An author's note reveals that a real woman named Mary Wilcocks/Wilcox (this story spells "Wilcox" with two l's instead of one), became a newspaper sensation after fooling many people about her identity.

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Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, not their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. The inclusion of a book's review does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.

Episode Reviews



Readability Age Range

9 to 12 years (but a warning on the back of the book jacket says “Not suitable for younger readers.”)


Catherine Johnson






Record Label



Corgi Books, an imprint of Random House Children’s Publishers UK, a Penguin Random House Company


On Video

Year Published





We hope this review was both interesting and useful. Please share it with family and friends who would benefit from it as well.

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