Baba Yaga lives in the woods. Baba Yaga has a house with chicken’s feet. Baba Yaga is a mother, a Jew, a crone and a witch, and she eats children, or she saves children – it really all depends on whom you ask.
When folk tales end, we rarely think about what happens next, but in “Thistlefoot” (Anchor Books, 2022), by GennaRose Nethercott, we find out. When the story ends, it haunts you.
As “Thistlefoot” starts, Isaac and Bellatine Yaga are estranged siblings, a brother and sister who grew up on the road with their parents’ traveling puppet show. Isaac left to see more of the world, while Bellatine rooted herself in the woods of Vermont, attempting to create a quiet life. But both of their lives are upended when they receive a call and later a package about a house left to them by an ancestor. When they go to claim the house in a giant warehouse, they find it has chicken feet and responds only to Yiddish.
The world Nethercott creates in “Thistlefoot” is almost identical to ours, except in the world of the book, houses can alter in fantastical ways. Homes grow gills to filter air during forest fires, or grow fins during floods – all manner of adaptive strategies to keep those inside its walls safe.
Since some people need to flee, Thistlefoot grew feet. While this alters the world of the book from our own, aside from Thistlefoot, there are no other mystical homes in the story.
The author is a folklorist, which is apparent in the telling of the stories in the novel, including the central one, about the Yaga siblings. The narrative weaves between Bellatine, Isaac, Thistlefoot as a narrator, the story of the Fool, and more. It can be difficult at times to keep the thread of the present day with so many interruptions from the past. The siblings have this problem too. As one of the narrators says, “To let too many stories in – it will undo you. You could not bear it.”
While I enjoyed the interwoven stories and timelines, there wasn’t as much space dedicated to exploring the siblings’ relationship as I wanted. Isaac and Bellatine are getting reacquainted, but they never develop a rapport. Sometimes the magic of the world overtakes the heart of the matter – that the stories we tell and the stories we hide impact our relationship with one another.
The book uses stories well in the macro sense, with the larger plot moving through the pages focused on inherited trauma, a sort of psychic stain on the people and places impacted by atrocities.
As Thistlefoot tells it: “Generations pass, and suddenly, we forget. Our descendants are born yearning and they do not know why, for they have forgotten ….The body remembers. The soured air remembers. We cannot forget. I cannot forget. And if I am to remember, so too, I vow, will you.”
The bigger stories, and the large-scale human cost of forgetting and being forgotten, are compellingly explored in the book. “All it takes is one survivor, and the story lives on. One survivor to carry the poems and the songs, the prayers, the sorrows. It isn’t just taking a life that destroys a people. It’s taking their history.”
The smaller stories that people tell themselves are less rigorously explored, such as Bellatine’s story about her hands, Isaac’s stories about his travels and the people he’s lost, the stories they tell about one another – the brother who would not stay, the sister who would not accept her gifts. These stories are the ones I wanted most, the ones that wove between the two siblings, the stories that could give their relationship more shape and complexity. Isaac and Bellatine are archetypes more often than siblings.
Over the course of the novel, mysteries are revealed, the reader is thrown through time and place, and one of the best narrators is a house.
Memory, in this book, is distinctly Jewish. Insistent, haunting, terrifying. What else could it be for a people so frequently displaced, hunted and tossed from their homes? As Bellatine says at one point, “Do you ever think about how there are people who just live regular day-to-day lives without being racked with existential dread? Like my friends back north. They wake up. They go to work. They watch TV. They aren’t in the past or the future, they’re like, right now. And they feel fine. Wild, right?”
To feel fine is not possible when the past is never past, when it is running after you, when it is embedded in your very bones.
The villains in this book are amorphous, like a nightmare half-remembered. The heroes are often vessels for ideas more often than people. The most clearly drawn character is Thistlefoot itself, who not only functions as a character in the story, but a narrator as well. As the house says, “Do not mistake Baba Yaga for the hero of my stories. She is not. She is not the villain, either. She is only a woman.”
We are all haunted by things from our past, from our lineage, from our choices, from our lack of choices. We are haunted by the day-to-day realities we face, by information overload, by the pandemic, by mass shootings, by our polarization, by the barrage of news.
“But what is a lie if not a story?” the book asks. “And ah, what power a story has when whispered into the ear of a man with a gun.” A story, it turns out, becomes a horror story when weapons are involved. In this book, sometimes those weapons are of this world, and sometimes the weapon is fear itself.
We too are neither the heroes nor the villains in our stories. We are not simply good or entirely evil. To be the main characters, though, we must cease our running and begin our fight, make our stand, stake our claim. We must be people worth telling stories about.
SARAH GREENLEAF (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the digital marketing specialist for the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island and writes for Jewish Rhode Island.