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This site is dedicated to exploring children's fiction.
I write it, read it, teach it and increasingly feel the need to talk about. Please feel free to join the conversation otherwise it will be a monologue and they can get quite dull.
My current project is concerned with transformations in children's writing.
If you have any suggestions or favourite books which deal with transformation please let me know.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo: Catherine Johnson

This is not part of my reading on transformations but a bit of pleasure reading. The author is a friend and a talented writer with a great eye for the telling detail and I enjoyed every minute of this.
 The story is based on true events in which a poor young woman, Mary Willcox, pretends to be from elsewhere, a game that becomes serious when the wealthy family of Knole Park House take her as their protege and take steps to prove that she is a foreign Princess. The story begins dramatically with an incident on the Malsbury Rd in which Mary is attacked and raped and recalls the loss of her baby. It is a hard hitting beginning which does not shy away from the grim reality of life for women without position in the nineteenth century. It is written from Mary's viewpoint so the reader sees both the desperation and the inventive escapism and wit that drives Mary to pose as an exotic stranger. Of course this means that the considerable tension in this book arises not from the 'Is she real or is she a fraud?' question which is so important to the other characters in the book, but from the fear of what will happen to her when her deception is uncovered. This is very well handled and the other view point characters, the privileged daughter and son, Cassendra and Fred of the house, provide an excellent foil for Caraboo. Through them the gap between Caraboo's fortunes and those of her money'd hosts is well illustrated. The reader is given an enticing and wholly convincing glimpse of nineteenth century life, which is conjured with the lightest of touches. Like all the best historical novels, this one opens a window on the past which is revealed as both familiar and startlingly strange.  The issue of Caraboo's race and origins is well handled. The book gives something of the flavour of the age which makes occasionally uncomfortable reading for the contemporary reader yet as an apparent outsider Mary's identity is fluid: in fitting in nowhere she can fit in everywhere. In spite of her vulnerabilities 'Caraboo' and later Mary is a character of real strength, integrity and agency.
The romance between Mary and Fred, though unhistorical, provides a fittingly optimistic conclusion to what is a throughly compelling read.

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