Every once in a while, a novel leaps off the pile with so many surprises and delights that you can’t put it down. I love Jewish history, and fairy tales, and lyric prose, and compelling characters. Thistlefoot [Anchor $28.00], by GennaRose Nethercott, contains all that and more.
Nethercott is a performer, poet and song- writer. Her attention to language shines in Thistlefoot. In an opening prologue, she delivers a botanical history of how tumbleweed, that supposed quintessential American plant, is actually thistle that was attached to the flaxseed Russian immigrants inadvertently brought to South Dakota. She signals her book’s subject:
Back in the old country, fires bloom like fields of red poppies. Kyiv, Chernihiv, Odessa. Shops and homes looted. Villages pillaged. Jews hanged from the rafters in their own kitchens …
At this moment across America, tumbleweeds burst into fire, burning bushes spinning across the prairie. An ocean away, something in them remembers.
Thistlefoot is a paean to that memory. We are never quite in time because its author puts us in an alternative world. The story begins in a mythical Mississippi seemingly in the present (there are driv- ers, and rideshares, and airports), though the tone has a whiff of the early twentieth century about it. Isaac Yaga is a magician and petty thief. He is estranged from his sister, Bellantine/Bella, a woodworker, and they are both distanced from their parents who are traveling puppeteers. The siblings grew up in their parents’ business before becoming adults.
Isaac and Bella each receive a strange call from a lawyer with an eastern European accent who tells them they have an inheritance from their twice-great- grandmother waiting for them in the Red Hook Marine Terminal. The heirloom is a house “propped up on two long, yellow chicken legs,” recalling their ancestor Baba Yaga, the Slavic fairy tale witch who eats children, and lives deep in the forest in a house standing on chicken feet. (This writer was scarred by reading a Baba Yaga story in grade school.)
The American Yagas soon realize the house moves and can be driven, but cannot be mastered. It contains awe-inspiring magical properties inside and out. Named Thistlefoot, the house talks to them and gives them warnings. “I have a sod roof, overgrown with alfalfa, vervain, basil, turmeric, ginger root, yellow squash, heir- loom tomatoes. Sprigs of horseradish and thyme. A cluster of purple yams.” And, “I loathe sitting still. If you try to make me sit still, I’ll kill you.”
Apparently, a part of this inheritance is intended to force the siblings to achieve a kind of détente, so they decode Thistlefoot’s mysteries together. Isaac proposes using the house as a theater, and badgers Bella into doing the carpentry to make that happen. Bella recalls her mother’s admonition: “People in our family, we’re born with thistles in our feet. It’s why we’re always traveling. Because if we stood still, the thistles would prick us.”
Ultimately, the siblings’ quest is toward justice. They must expose the evils that have been buried in the Old Country in hopes of preventing such violence in the future. Adventures ensue.
Nethercott narrates this startlingly imaginative and somehow credible tale with the ear of a master storyteller. The house itself takes turns narrating (“Before I was a house, I was a baby chick cracked loose from an egg”). The Yaga children— and the reader—learn their history from the Old Country, gain increased under- standing of their family of origin, and recognize the magnitude of their quest.
The magic of this book is, well, its magic. It can be read as a straight-up fairy tale. Yet it also speaks right to our troubled age of closed borders, of refugees. Finally, it serves as Bella’s coming- of-age story, as she finds her artistic voice, begins to own her heritage, and learns to trust her instincts. Given Nethercott’s preoccupation with the past, it is not surprising that she dedicates her book in part to our ancestors.
However interpreted, this book offers readers a rare treat.
Martha Anne Toll is a book critic and novelist. Her debut, Three Muses, won the Petrichor Prize for Finely Crafted Fiction.