How to Survive in a World that Doesn’t Want You: Catherine Johnson’s Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, History, Media Archive, United Kingdom, Women on 2018-04-01 02:33Z by Steven

How to Survive in a World that Doesn’t Want You: Catherine Johnson’s Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo

theracetoread: Children’s Literature and Issues of Race

Karen Sands-O’Connor, Professor
English Department
Buffalo State, The State University of New York, Buffalo, New York

“Princess Caraboo” From an engraving by Henry Meyer, after a picture by Edward Bird[1]

If you Google “Caraboo” sometime, one of the sites that comes up is a hypertext edition of an 1817 account of the life of Mary Wilcocks Baker, also known as the Princess Caraboo ( The mysterious editor of the site (he goes by Mr. X) begins the hypertext with a stern condemnation of the “romantic fictions” that modern versions of Caraboo’s story have presented; and the 1817 account itself acts as a general warning to kind-hearted ladies who take in foreign-looking women. The 1817 version, by John Matthew Gutch, cannot help but admire Mary Wilcocks Baker’s skill at survival and ability to escape detection for so long. At one point he writes, “Cervantes himself could not have expected the realization of so fine a scene” (18). Mr. X, whose other interests include lake monsters in Canada, cannot share in Mr. Gutch’s admiration; he wants to unmask Caraboo as an “imposter”.

This is a copy of Mr. E. Bird’s portrait of “Caraboo” in the clothing that she made as part of her “native” costume. An engraving of this portrait was inserted into John Matthew Gutch’s version of Caraboo’s story, and it is also mentioned in Johnson’s version.

For Mr. X, the reasons why this young woman would have taken on a new identity are irrelevant. To imagine that criminals have honorable motives is nothing more than romantic fiction. But Mr. X—who, interestingly, has himself taken on an alternate identity— has never, if we can take him at “face” value, been a woman. Catherine Johnson, in her recent novel for the young adult audience, The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo, clearly does know what it is like to be a woman, and she shows in her eponymous character a vulnerable, poor, mixed race girl in Britain’s early 19th century who rises above the situation in which she finds herself to not only survive, but thrive…

Read the entire review here.

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