[Book Review]: GennaRose Nethercott’s Thistlefoot

On stories, ghosts, and life

Kill the lantern, raise the ghost

Stories have always had a unique kind of power. Folktales in particular are some of the strongest, comfortably occupying the space between creating new worlds and allowing us a deeper understanding of our own. GennaRose Nethercott’s Thistlefoot takes this exploration to new and fantastical heights with her tale of two siblings who must uncover the mysteries of their past to better understand the unusual family heirloom recently come into their possession.

Through alternating perspectives, Thistlefoot delves the depths of the difference between a memory and a story, and the importance of the space where the two intersect. Bellatine and Isaac Yaga don’t know much about their family history. Somewhere along the line between potentially-mystical, voluntarily isolating village crone and adoring mother, their grandmother never held the oral tradition of passing on family tales. But there is…something else that connects them. Strange abilities, tense relationships, a family puppet show business…and a house that stands on chicken legs and takes every opportunity to run.

One part lush fairy tale, one part exploration on the meaning of storytelling, Thistlefoot doesn’t just wonder what it would be like if walls could talk — it presents a world in which the walls, floors, and windows all have a story to whisper into any willing ear. A world where memory manifests into magic, and the consequences of our histories follow us until we make time to listen and learn from them. A world in which belief is everything.

Thistlefoot is the kind of lived-in, fantastical tale that all fairy tales strive to be: a way to honor history otherwise hard to talk about, unafraid to approach the darkness while centering itself around the vitality of light. There is aching here, and longing, pain that wrenches the heart. But it is tinged and balanced with joy. Long before we know the Yaga family’s tragedy, we are given infinite windows into the things that make them unique and vibrant individuals. We learn their fears alongside the things that bring them the most comfort. And Thistlefoot itself, the chicken-legged house? It welcomes us with equal parts warning and warmth, shaping its origins around what it believes we need to hear, until we are ready for the truest version. Even when the secrets whispering its walls are laid bare, it still desires to comfort us with the knowledge it has to impart.

Nethercott’s novel is also something even more important than a story about stories — it is a story about the preservation and passage of cultural history. The Jewish heart beating at the center of Thistlefoot is at once a comforting and vital presence. That it tells the story of a tragedy without letting itself become wholly tragic is a joy. That it knows the importance of honoring memory while constantly, ceaselessly celebrating life is the kind of refreshing comfort folk and fairy tales are and should be made for, even at their darkest. Bellatine, Isaac, Winifred, and all the rest feel so lived-in it’s as if they are gathered around you telling the story themselves.

Though here there be devils and angels alike, dybbuks and demons (who all look like soldiers, even when they aren’t), Thistlefoot is the kind of lush prose with a burning core meant to be enjoyed curled up at the fire, or passed down at the dinner table lit by candlelight.

Kill the lantern, it begs, and raise the ghosts of history to guide you firmly toward the future.

I would like to thank NetGalley and the publisher for the opportunity to read an advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Thistlefoot comes to shelves near you September 13, 2022 from Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group

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Katelyn Nelson

Katelyn Nelson

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Katelyn Nelson’s writing interests lean mostly toward pop culture analysis and representation. She tweets @24th_Doctor, mostly about horror.