• Review
By – September 1, 2022

In Thistle­foot, Nether­cott con­verts painful remem­brance itself into a fierce, lyri­cal fable. As the nov­el opens, events both recent and past have already tak­en up res­i­dence in the bod­ies of Isaac and his sis­ter, Bel­la­tine. Isaac hides from him­self as the Chameleon King, whose street per­for­mances ven­tril­o­quize oth­ers. Bel­la­tine, a cab­i­net­mak­er, works with wood, ter­ri­fied to lose con­trol of her hands, which can heat and bleed with life-giv­ing pow­er. Mem­o­ry also puls­es in the hearth fire and ceil­ing mur­al of a cot­tage that walks (and runs and roosts) on chick­en feet — a home that Isaac and Bel­la­tine have inher­it­ed from Baba Yaga, the great-great-grand­moth­er whom they nev­er knew. Mem­o­ry is like­wise what moti­vates the smoky spec­tral Long­shad­ow Man to come after them, deter­mined as he is to erase all knowl­edge of what hap­pened in the Russ­ian shtetl of Gedenkrov­ka, now Ukraine, in 1919.

Won­drous details and plot twists gen­er­ate sur­prise through­out Nethercott’s short chap­ters, which are nar­rat­ed by var­i­ous char­ac­ters past and present. Even Baba Yaga’s house on chick­en feet — whom Isaac and Bel­la­tine name Thistle­foot and speak to in Yid­dish when they want her to move — has her own cocky say. Broth­er and sis­ter even­tu­al­ly turn This­te­foot into a trav­el­ing pup­pet the­ater and begin to research the mys­ter­ies she holds within.

The most poignant pas­sages limn Isaac’s and Bellatine’s grow­ing under­stand­ing of each oth­er and them­selves, along with human­iz­ing per­son­al tales by the Baba Yaga witch of folk­lore and Thistle­foot. We sense Baba Yaga’s lone­li­ness, her joy as she cre­ates two daugh­ters from teeth and rugelach, and her hor­rif­ic loss dur­ing a sav­age pogrom. We come to find that Isaac feels guilty for los­ing a friend while out vagabond­ing. And we see that Bel­la­tine feels guilty, too, for the tor­ture she once inflict­ed when try­ing to resus­ci­tate an injured deer — such that, now, she can­not let her­self act on her love for the stone stat­ue of a girl she has brought to life.

On the run with Thistle­foot, Isaac and Bel­la­tine join forces with three out­siders in a black bus, who have been track­ing and res­cu­ing vic­tims from the wake of destruc­tion and death that the Long­shad­ow Man has left along the way. In a pre­dictable pat­tern, the vil­lain tricks vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple into drink­ing an elixir from his blue bot­tle, which fills them with night­mare smoke, sets ghost­ly pas­sen­gers upon their backs, and incites them into self-jus­ti­fy­ing fren­zies of indi­vid­ual and mob violence.

Nethercott’s prose is pas­sion­ate and unput­down­able, with the dra­mat­ic visu­al strength of a Tim Bur­ton film. As Thistle­foot asks, How long does it take for the body to real­ize it is safe? … There is no such thing as a ghost of the dead. Yet suf­fer­ing has a way of beg­ging to be remem­bered.” Not until they acknowl­edge the past, in oth­er words, can these young pro­tag­o­nists live res­o­nant lives.

Sharon Elswit, author of The Jew­ish Sto­ry Find­er and a school librar­i­an for forty years in NYC, now resides in San Fran­cis­co, where she shares tales aloud in a local JCC preschool and vol­un­teers with 826 Valen­cia to help stu­dents write their own sto­ries and poems.

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