‘Thistlefoot’ Brings Extra Emotion to Folktales

Home is where the heart is. In the case of GennaRose Nethercott’s debut novel, Thistlefoot, home can be wherever home chooses to go. And along being the resting place for the heart, home is also where generational trauma from an entire community comes to roost.

The Yaga siblings were once close. Helping their parents run a puppet theater will do that to kids. But now, as young adults, their lives couldn’t be more dissimilar. Bellatine, the younger of the two, wants to open up a woodshop and never look at a puppet again. Isaac, the older one, ran away from home at age 17 and only looks back when the siblings get a mysterious summons to a port. As the youngest members of the Yaga clan, they are the joint recipients of an odd inheritance: a house set upon two giant chicken legs. And it moves.

The house once belonged, of course, to Baba Yaga, the old forest witch of folklore fame. How she got her name and how the house came to walk on two oversized chicken legs are both stories that have many variations. All stories are true, Isaac says to another character at one point, but for some the truth is of a more concrete sort than others. Bellatine wants to live in the house forever while Isaac has no interest in even a walking house’s definition of stability, so he makes her a deal. If she’ll help him put on a traveling puppet show for one year and let him keep all the profits, he’ll sign over his half of the house to her. She agrees, reluctantly, on the condition that she doesn’t have to touch any of the puppets herself. But it doesn’t take long for things to go awry, most frequently at the hands of a mysterious figure dubbed the Longshadow Man, who sows chaos wherever he goes and seems to be very interested in finding a house walking on chicken legs. As he gets closer, the people nearest to Bellatine and Isaac become more and more at risk, and it’s up to the siblings to stop bickering long enough to figure out why the Longshadow Man wants the house—and how to stop him.

The cover of GennaRose Nethercott's Thistlefoot, featuring the title in red letters amid what appears to be a paper cutout of a house on chicken legs and a young woman and man below it.

What starts as a fun, folklore-y tale about two young people with slightly magical powers trying to unpack multiple generations’ worth of baggage as they travel down the Eastern Seaboard ended up a heavy, poignant tale that made me cry. Not necessarily because I loved the present-day characters so very much, but because of the decades of sorrow that all culminate in them having—well, not exactly normal problems, because of the whole slightly magical powers thing, not to mention the otherworldly antagonist chasing them, but relatable ones. Not feeling like you’re living up to family expectations, feeling like you don’t belong anywhere, feeling like the world and your own frailties are conspiring against you, being the recipient of a legacy you didn’t ask for and probably don’t want—all of these things resonate with how my early 20s were.

As siblings, Bellatine and Isaac are so similar to each other, yet that similarity is the very thing that keeps them from connecting. Both have innate abilities that separate them from their peers, and both suffer physically when they don’t use those abilities. For Isaac, the so-called Chameleon King, he can use his powers of uncanny imitation to move through the world unseen if he wishes. For Bellatine, whose power is somewhat more, uh, dynamic, the pent-up energy just might drive her mad.

In truth, I didn’t come to love either one as a friend who just happened to live between the pages of a book, as happens sometimes in books. Isaac in particular was more difficult to connect with, though that could be that not even he knows quite who he is or what he wants besides running away. Bellatine’s reluctance to do what her body needed to do and the war against fragments of herself was painful and frustrating to witness, but also understandable. But I think a better quality for characters to have than being liked is to evoke emotion. Isaac and Bellatine may not have ended up feeling like friends, but I felt an overwhelming sense of grace and sympathy for them, especially by the end. I want the world for them, whatever shape that world might need to take to suit them perfectly.

A still from The Simpsons featuring Marge talking to Lisa and saying, "What's the matter, sweetie? Is one of your book characters having difficulties?"
The flip side of wanting the best for the characters you read about is feeling sad or mad when bad things happen.

Thistlefoot, though—what an easy entity to love. Thistlefoot gets its own point of view, as the only conscious thing that knows the story it’s in from beginning to end. It matter-of-factly tells multiple versions of its tale, each one containing a piece of what the reader might call truth. And when the story it tells comes to an end, I had to stop reading for a moment to collect myself.

Fortunes ebb and flow, we learn in Thistlefoot, and joy and tragedy carry equal weight to life and time. But what you remember of those ups and downs also carries weight. The stories told about the events that make up a life, or a death, matter as much as the events themselves. Things that seem buried are still alive generations later in the souls of those who live on. Whether contained in stories or burning with words unspoken and forgotten, we are taught, what happened cannot and should not be erased. I eagerly await whatever stories Nethercott tells next.

%d bloggers like this: