The Yaga siblings--Bellatine, a young woodworker, and Isaac, a wayfaring street performer and con artist--have been estranged since childhood, separated both by resentment and by wide miles of American highway. But when they learn that they are to receive an inheritance, the siblings agree to meet--only to discover that their bequest isn't land or money, but something far stranger: a sentient house on chicken legs.
A vibrant, shape-shifting collage of family saga, Jewish folklore and magical adventure, GennaRose Nethercott’s debut novel, Thistlefoot, is, like its namesake, weird and wonderful ... In the chapters narrated by the house, Thistlefoot tells stories of Baba Yaga, her daughters and her at-times frightful sense of justice. These interludes, vividly voiced and perfectly paced, are some of the book’s best moments. Nethercott’s warm embrace of her source material makes these fairy tale-esque stories welcome interludes amid Isaac and Bellatine’s more modern woes ... Nethercott’s gorgeous writing continually surprises and delights, and she pulls off some amazing turns of phrase with confidence. The first few pages give a brief history of an invasive plant that everyone thinks of as uniquely American but is actually from another country entirely—and they’re so engagingly written that I was immediately hooked. Even if a few passages feel overwrought, something marvelous comes along in short order to make up for it, such as a queer love story in which Nethercott patiently brings to life the tender joy of a new romance ... a triumph. Strange and heart-wrenching, perplexing and beautiful, it’s an open door and a warm hearth, inviting you to stay awhile and listen.
Steeped in the ancient tropes of folk tales and animated by a passionate belief in the vital role of storytelling, GennaRose Nethercott’s first novel builds on her work as a folklorist and poet ... There’s a lot of dense plotting to absorb while Thistlefoot fills us in about Baba Yaga and the grim fate of the shtetl’s Jewish inhabitants, in counterpoint with Isaac and Bellatine struggling through their own painful memories. The text is stuffed, perhaps overstuffed, with Nethercott’s thoughts on everything from antisemitism and class prejudice to the nature of identity and the mixed blessing of belonging to a community. Through it all, her central concern is how we preserve and understand the past through the stories we tell ... The eventual, somewhat schematic explanations of what the Longshadow Man is and why he’s hunting Thistlefoot aren’t as interesting as the author’s bravura riffs connecting old and new tales and Old and New Worlds ... But this gorgeously written epitaph for a hobo lays the groundwork for the novel’s riveting and moving climax, in which Isaac and Bellatine claim their extraordinary abilities as weapons against the Longshadow Man and affirmations of their heritage ... s by no means a perfect novel, but it is something almost better: a book with so much on its mind that it bursts its seams to sprawl across genres and forms. Nethercott explores more ideas than her plot can comfortably contain, but serious readers will appreciate her ambition and commitment.
Nethercott’s quiet, lyrical, yet potent prose likewise breathes life into this stirring, multigenerational fairy tale, which suggests that you will always carry your ancestors’ suffering within you, even when you know little of your own family history. In some chapters, the wise, cynical Thistlefoot speaks to the reader directly, recalling its history with Baba Yaga, the witch from Slavic folklore, as well as chilling anecdotes of Jewish persecution in early twentieth-century Russia (now Ukraine). This fable about fables reminds us of the staying power of stories, even as they evolve or contradict themselves over time.