A Weird & Whimsical Inheritance from Ukraine

February 28, 2023 in Library Corner

By Robin Jacobson. 

Thistlefoot by GennaRose Nethercott is a rollicking adventure story of magical realism, a spellbinding blend of old and new folklore. Comical yet profound, the novel explores serious subjects – inherited trauma, the roots of mob violence, and the power of folklore to preserve cultural history. Widely acclaimed, Thistlefoot was a finalist for the 2023 Jewish Fiction Award and one of NPR’s and the Wall Street Journal’s “Best Books of the Year.”

A Mysterious Inheritance

Isaac and Bellatine Yaga are siblings in their early twenties. Isaac is a roving street entertainer with an uncanny gift for mimicking audience members, earning him the moniker “Chameleon King.” Isaac’s younger sister Bellatine is a talented woodworker. Estranged since Isaac left home at age 17, the siblings reunite at a New York warehouse. They are there to collect a mysterious family inheritance, newly shipped from Ukraine.

The siblings’ great-great-grandmother Baba Yaga stipulated in her will that, 70 years after her death (a date that has now arrived), a certain heirloom is to be sent to her “youngest living direct descendants.” When Isaac and Bellatine open the enormous crate awaiting them in the warehouse, they find to their astonishment Baba Yaga’s shtetl cottage, a home that walks on chicken legs.

In Eastern European folklore, Baba Yaga is a ferocious, witchlike crone who inhabits a chicken-legged hut. Nethercott has refashioned this stock character into an early 20th century Jewish mother living in a shtetl called Gedenkrovka, located in what is now Ukraine. When the siblings attempt to trot their Jewish ancestor’s odd bequest out of the warehouse, they discover that the house responds to commands in Yiddish. Gey vayter! (Go forward!)

Bellatine feels immediately at home in the bizarre dwelling, naming it Thistlefoot. Isaac offers to sell her his share of the house in return for the earnings they will make if they convert Thistlefoot into a traveling puppet theater for a year (the siblings grew up in a family of puppeteers). Reluctantly, Bellantine agrees. For reasons we learn, returning to puppetry is a fearful prospect for her. Moreover, she worries that Isaac, ever restless, will again abandon her.

On the road, the siblings meet a quirky band of folk-punk musicians, who warn them that they are being pursued by a sinister character. The Longshadow Man sparks dangerous riots wherever he goes and may be linked to a brutal pogrom that devastated Gedenkrovka in 1919.  How does he lure ordinary people into violence and why does he want Thistlefoot?

An Itinerant Author

Only 32, GennaRose Nethercott already has a life story almost as adventure filled as her novel. Born and raised in Vermont, GennaRose spent summers touring with her father and brother in a family clown act.

After college, including a stint in Scotland studying supernatural folklore, Nethercott spent five years living as a street poet, writing poems-to-order, first in Europe and then in New Orleans. In Europe, she traveled from town to town with an antique typewriter, lace tablecloth, and collapsible table in her backpack. In each new place, she set up shop and invited passersby to request a poem on any topic. Says Nethercott, “Ferrets. Lost loves. Mothers’ birthdays. Eulogies. Tambourines. I’ve written ’em all.”

For Nethercott, Thistlefoot is a personal story. She is named for her great-grandmother who grew up in a shtetl called Rotmistrivka. The events in Thistlefoot’s shtetl, Gedenkrovka (an invented name combining the Yiddish word for “remember” with the Russian word for “blood”), actually transpired in Rotmistrivka. To grapple with this history and its present-day echoes, Nethercott turned to folklore, creating the wise and witty Thistlefoot.