We Played With Fire

We Played With Fire

By Author / Illustrator

Catherine Barter


Historical Fiction

Age range(s)



Andersen Press Ltd




Paperback / softback




Maggie has witnessed impossible things. But no one believes her, and now her family has taken her away to spend the winter upstate in a remote, freezing farmhouse.

Bored and angry, Maggie and her younger sister Kate start to play tricks: rapping on the floorboards above their parents’ bedroom, cracking their toes under the table, and telling tales about noises in the night. Then the house starts to make sounds of its own. Neither Maggie nor Kate can explain it, but it seems as though someone – or something – is trying to speak to them . . .

Inspired by the incredible true tale of the Fox Sisters, the girls who made their fortune in nineteenth-century America by speaking to ghosts.



We Played With Fire By Catherine Barter is based on the true story of the Fox sisters - Kate, Maggie and Leah - and it plunges the reader straight into the forbidden cellar of the Fox family's remote old house in New York State, full of bitter cold, brooding shadows and noises which cannot be explained. When neighbours gather to hear the house's mysterious creaks and raps for themselves, a chain of events is set in motion which propels the girls into the public eye, with a growing reputation for talking to the spirits of the dead. But in 1840's New York, as well as fans grateful for the comfort of a message from lost loved ones, the Fox sisters meet with scepticism and outright condemnation. How will teenaged Kate and Maggie cope with their newfound fame and notoriety?

The many-layered narrative delivers heart-racing, edge-of-your-seat scares, the gradual revealing of a mysterious incident in Maggie's past, and fascinating social history of pre-civil war USA. It also deals thoughtfully and sensitively with issues around death and grief.

The Fox sisters' history is linked with the movements to abolish slavery and to advance women's rights, and the book draws out these themes in a way that will resonate with modern readers who have even half an eye on current affairs. More than once, female characters comment on how there is always a man around to explain something, whether or not it needs explaining. A cameo from Maggie's former teacher expounds the fear white men have of anything which threatens the power structures they have created in their 'free' society. Yet it is the actions of white men which started the girls' careers.

This book would be a great discussion starter in PSHE or RE. An interesting afterword details some of the known facts of the Fox sisters' lives, with a bibliography for readers wanting to learn more. The Fox sisters are generally acknowledged to be the founders of the Spiritualist movement, which persists today. Did the girls really possess the gift of communicating with the spirits of the dead? Or were they clever frauds, preying on the suggestible? Readers must decide for themselves.

Either way, this is a thoroughly enjoyable historical, anti-racist, feminist, biographical, ghost story!

336 pages / Reviewed by Kimberley Lawson, school librarian

Suggested Reading Age 11+


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