Sure, Thistlefoot is about a house with chicken legs, but it’s also about so much more. 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.
The Yaga siblings haven’t seen each other in a long time. Bellatine has thrown herself into woodworking as she searches for meaning in her life. Her brother, Isaac, on the other hand, has thrown himself into street performance, transience and petty crime. They’re reunited when a lawyer tells them that one of their long-lost Russian relatives has left them something. Bellatine and Isaac open an enormous shipping container—and a sentient house named Thistlefoot, complete with chicken legs, squats before them.
Isaac promises to let Bellatine keep the house for herself after they use it to tour the country for a series of marionette performances. But a sinister specter known only as the Longshadow Man gives chase to the Yagas, bringing ghostly destruction along with him. It’s a race to see if Isaac and Bellatine can stay one step ahead of the Longshadow Man and unlock the mysteries of Thistlefoot before it’s too late.
Thistlefoot is inspired by the tales of Baba Yaga, a powerful witch from Eastern European folklore who lives in the woods in a house that stands on chicken legs. The fables of Baba Yaga and her children hold special significance for the descendants of Russian Jews the world over, but Nethercott will quickly bring those who don’t know the stories up to speed with chapters told from Thistlefoot’s point of view interspersed with ones from Isaac’s and Bellatine’s perspectives. 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.
Thistlefoot is 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.