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Review of The Magician and the Spirits: Harry Houdini and the Curious Pastime of Communicating with the Dead

The Magician and the Spirits: Harry Houdini and the Curious Pastime of Communicating with the Dead
by Deborah Noyes
Middle School    Viking    152 pp.
8/17    978-0-8037-4018-1    $18.99

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Spiritualist movement swept the nation. Noyes (Ten Days a Madwoman, rev. 1/16) uses Harry Houdini’s attempts to discredit the movement as her entry point into this intriguing phenomenon. Starting with a population reeling from loss of life during a period of high mortality and large-scale events such as the Civil War, WWI, and the flu epidemic, Noyes sets the context for a vast group of people eager to contact deceased loved ones. She provides brief background on Houdini’s life and work (briefly diverting readers’ attention with Houdini’s escapist feats) before exploring her main topics. These include his friendship with Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle, a staunch believer, and Houdini’s attempts to unmask “flimflammers” who used a myriad of methods to trick their customers, including séances, spirit writing, knocking sounds, and visual illusions. Noyes ends on a chilling note, showing that the glamorization of the afterlife may well have led to a spate of suicides. Most chilling of all is Noyes’s (and Houdini’s) conclusion that humans, no matter how smart or educated, will, despite scientific evidence, believe in those fictions they wish to. Appended with chapter notes, a bibliography and webliography, and an index.

From the November/December 2017 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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About Betty Carter

Betty Carter, an independent consultant, is professor emerita of children’s and young adult literature at Texas Woman’s University.

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