Before reading Catherine Barter's latest YA novel, We Played With Fire, I had absolutely no idea who the Fox Sisters were, but I'm a massive fan of Gothic fiction and this book positively radiated it. That and its intriguing tagline - 'the spirit-talking Fox Sisters await you' - was enough to lure me into finding out more about these mysterious sisters. Post-reading and I honestly have not stopping thinking about this book since.
Largely credited with kick-starting the Spiritualist Movement, the three Fox Sisters from New York, made great fortune and, even greater headlines, during the mid-nineteenth century when they revealed they could communicate with the dead. Many deemed the girl's 'gifts' as a profitable hoax and the authenticity behind their séances continue to this day to stir riveting conversations and debates. Were the teenage girls’ masters of exploitation, or did their rapture for childish trickery and imagination stem from something much greater, and far sinister? It's this ambiguous tension that Barter masterfully teases with in We Played With Fire, laying bare the darker, unsettling possibilities of the unknown, all beautifully intertwined in an irresistible slice of history.
When 15-year-old Maggie Fox is incriminated in a terrible event, no one believes her when she claims it was a ghost. When the family flee the scandal to spend the winter in upstate New York in a remote, freezing farmhouse, Maggie and her younger sister Kate turn their angry boredom into supernatural tricks. But when the house starts to make menacing sounds of its own, Maggie, Kate and Leah quickly find themselves in a wild whirlwind of spirits, sightings and séances.
Deliciously arresting and hauntingly atmospheric, Barter writes with such a hypnotic, commanding voice that it had me hanging on every word. Coupled with her ability to stir up an uneasy and eerie tension that you could cut with a knife, We Played With Fire is a heart-pounding, page-turning feat.
And seamlessly weaved into this stirring spiritualist plot of toe cracks and theatricals is a historical landscape peppered with engaging conversations surrounding radical politics, religion, women's rights, abolition, and other progressive social movements and activism. With a background in American Cultural Studies, Barter writes with an unquestionable knowledge of the period and its events and it's this validity that makes We Played With Fire so much more than just a ghost story. Notable figures like the radical Quakers, Amy and Isaac Post, and the antislavery campaigner Frederick Douglass make an appearance and touch on the worldly topics of the Underground Railroad, the Suffrage Movement and the 1848 Rochester women's rights convention. And all of this is rooted in an undeniable feminist heart that silently screams empowerment and rebellion against oppression and authority.
Fraudsters or not, I honestly take my hat off to the Fox Sisters. In a society that gave women little to no voice, the sisters bravely shunned the world into silence and from it they paved a way for a new movement that rivalled the pre-existing, conformist notions. Whether it was intentional or not, they saw a power and potential behind their raps and toes cracks and made an impressive livelihood out of it. And all while they were teenagers - the youngest sister, Kate Fox, was just eleven years old when the first 'ghostly' encounter took place!
We Played With Fire is a thought-provoking, richly layered novel, saturated with the whispered undertones of the great literary classics, The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson and Arthur Miller's The Crucible. It's fierce, it's feminist, and it's perfect for fans of Frances Hardinge and Deirdre Sullivan.
YA book clubs, I dare you not to read this!
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