CARAVAN begins its journey with sixteen-year-old Caressa Horvath, a child of carnival people, living in poverty with her mother and grandmother in turn-of-the-century Boston. Caressa is adept at working finger puppets and, thanks to her Grams, picking pockets. Not so thankfully, she is the focus of her social-climbing mother, who sends her to a finishing school to learn how to be a lady.
While at school, Caressa resolves to send Christmas gifts home, and to pick a pocket for the money. Choosing a gentleman who has experienced such chicanery before, she is caught red-handed.
Far from being offended, Jacob Bowman, much her elder, is enchanted. He courts her and then marries her. All this transpires while Jacob is planning a trip to North Africa to experience the Sahara Desert, so he decides to take Caressa with him.
On their trek by caravan across the treacherous Sahara, they are accosted by a band of nomads, the Tuareg, who demand money in return for safe travel. Jacob refuses. The Tuareg attack. Caressa hides, but Jacob is beheaded and the caravan is destroyed.
The Tuareg discover Caressa, who is talking to her finger puppets for comfort. Too frightened to kill her, the superstitious Tuareg assume that she has magical powers; they take her with them to their home in the Hoggar Mountains.
Thus begins Caressa’s adventurous and danger-filled quest to escape and return to America. On the way, she befriends a young African boy, is sold into slavery, meets her true love, and is forced to keep a secret, perhaps for the rest of her life.