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Sepia-tinted. Three women  sit around a table, by candlelight, holding a séance. Background spiritualist paraphernalia.

by Catherine Barter


‘Some people were beautiful, some people were intelligent. Maggie and Kate could crack their bones. You had to make the best of what you were given’. Catherine Barter’s second novel delves into the fascinating lives of mid-19thC teenage mediums, the Fox Sisters, credited with originating the Spiritualist Movement. Were their séances mere fakery, exploitative parlour games which benefited from their talents as bone cruncher or did they tap in to something genuinely beyond their contemporaries’ rational understanding? The tension of this novel lies precisely in the author’s evasion of easy answers. Catherine wanted to re-cast the Fox Sisters as more complex figures than previous biographies would have them, and the result is a text which equivocates tantalisingly.

Drawing on the author’s background in American Cultural Studies, this fictionalised biography takes place against a landscape of mid-19th century radical politics, early suffrage and abolition in particular, as they intersected with the advent of Spiritualism. A fantastic array of secondary characters include real life radical Quakers, Amy and Isaac Post. The novel skips between Hydesville (New York), Rochester and New York, a speed matched by evocative passages on the period’s ‘rush’ of populations - from the arrival of Irish immigrants to those escaping from the South through the Underground Railroad to the gold seekers heading out to California.

A truly exciting work of historical fiction, We Played With Fire is also a genuinely chilling Gothic read. As with Catherine’s debut, Troublemakers, the narrative is steered through the voice of a spirited teenage girl, Maggie Fox, living in the thrilling ‘now’ of her teenage years, coming in to her own, finding her voice and waking the dead along the way...."

(This review by Letterbox Library first appeared in Books for Keeps; issue 247, March 2021. For our full article on author Catherine Barter, visit: Troublemaker and Agitator: The Work of Catherine Barter – Books For Keeps. Age 11+, Paperback 326pp


Themes: Gender Equality 


SKU: 3119
£7.99 Regular Price
£7.19Sale Price
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