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Thistlefoot by GennaRose Nethercott: A Book Review

If a story does its job, it doesn't ever end. Not really. But it can change. This is the nature of folktales. They shift to fit each teller. Take whatever form suits the bearer best. What begins as a story of sorrow can be acknowledged, held like a sweetheart to the chest, rocked and sung to. And then it can be set down to sleep. It can become an offering. A lantern. An ember to lead you through the dark.

ThistlefootThe day I opened the speculative-fiction, kind-of-a-fairy-tale/legend-retelling, magical-realistic, puppet-themed novel Thistlefoot—which I had anticipated for months—I almost shut it again, because: the opening chapter is in New Orleans, and, I don’t know. It’s not a place of the world that appeals to me, probably because I am too uptight. But I persevered because one of my bookstagram friends had loved it and because of that anticipation I’d felt.

And I am so glad I did.

Thistlefoot is a reworking of the Baba Yaga legend from Russia. Bellatine and Isaac Yaga are siblings who have been estranged for years, but they reconnect when they receive an inheritance from their great great grandmother, who had kept the item in storage for almost a century. When they open the enormous crate they discover they’ve inherited an old house.

A house on chicken legs.

Isaac has spent most of the past decade as a wanderer, moving around the country like a tumbleweed. Bellatine is a woodworker living a very controlled and careful life in the northeast.

Each of the siblings has a unique skill. Isaac can impersonate anyone—not just sort-of, but change his body so he absorbs the person’s body shape and personality. Bellatine is deeply ashamed of her skill and tries to keep it hidden: if she touches an inanimate object she can bring it to life for a few minutes. As they grew up in a family that had a traveling puppet show, these skills have been useful, but Bellatine especially rejects hers, because it can go deeper than just giving a puppet a voice (a literal voice, along with a temporary heartbeat) for a few minutes; she can also reanimate the dead.

The siblings decide they will take their family’s old puppet show on the road, making the traveling house into their stage. But their plans begun to unwind in the draft of a menace that seems to be chasing them, which they eventually learn—via the world’s weirdest musicians—is an entity called the Longshadow Man.

Part of the story is told in Bellatine’s voice, part in Isaac’s, part in the house’s (I loved these chapters).

And that is mostly all I will say about the plot and characters, as it is best left to discover the story while you read it, but I do want to write about why I loved the book. It might, in fact, be my most favorite book I’ve read this year, even with that rough start in The Big Easy. The reasons I loved it are not universal; I think many readers could read this and just think "yeah, that was amazing!" but for me it went deeper than just liking the story, the character, or the writing (and the writing is amazing).

It held a bit of knowledge I needed to learn in order to keep moving forward.

The book is partly about generational trauma, and how when we don’t know our ancestor’s stories, we don’t understand why we react in the ways we do. As I have been going through my recent extended-family struggles, I have thought a lot about the disappointment my ancestors might feel in us, our connections broken. But the book healed a bit of that. It made me think that who I am, the weird “skills” I have inherited from the struggles my ancestors went through (and I absolutely believe this is a thing; not, of course, in magical hands that can bring a gravestone statue to life, but in real ways), and then the things I am struggling with now (or have throughout my life) are about ME. From my perspective, for my way of being in the world, who I am is just me. That is also true of my sisters. I thought what mattered was connection, and that it mattered (partly) because of the ancestry we share. I found my value, in other words, from being a part of the group. But just as the skills the Yaga siblings have manifest differently in their bodies—uniquely—I also get to have value simply because I exist.

(It is hard to write that in a way that makes sense without telling the whole story, but it isn’t a story I can tell online, for a variety of reasons.)

When I put the book down, finished, my body was literally shaking. As if I had done some really difficult exercise, which maybe I had. It was a sort of knowledge that had to work its way through my body. Like my ancestors nudging their way through my DNA to tell me a few things, to tell me they value me for myself but also to remind me that they wish they could tell me their stories.

I thought about a conversation I had once with an old neighbor, who told me she never reads fiction because she doesn’t have time to read anything that doesn’t teach her something. But what I learned from Thistlefoot—while it is personal and kind of nebulous and very hard to put into words—is of more value and has a bigger impact that anything I might learn from a self-help book.

That’s the magic of books and reading, really. At least for me. GennaRose Nethercott doesn’t know me and didn’t write her story to give me this little piece of healing. But nevertheless, she wrote it and I read it and I did heal. And it is why I will always be a reader, because truth is scattered, because stories change us, because knowledge is everywhere but you have to seek it out.


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