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One of Eastern Europe’s Strangest Legends Is Coming to America

A delightfully weird debut novel tells the story of a Yiddish-speaking house on chicken legs.

There’s a Yiddish curse that goes like this: “He should have a hundred houses, and in every house a hundred rooms, and in every room 20 beds, and he should have a delirious fever that will drive him from bed to bed.”

The namesake house in Thistlefoot, a new novel from GennaRose Nethercott, isn’t quite so dastardly—but it’s a curse of sorts for its owners. Based on a hodgepodge of Jewish and Eastern European folktales, the book retells the legend of Baba Yaga, a fearsome Slavic woman who dwells in a house that runs around on chicken legs. In Nethercott’s retelling, Baba Yaga bequeaths the chicken-legged house to her twice-great grandchildren, Isaac and Bellatine Yaga, in modern-day America. Chaos ensues.

Nethercott, a folklorist and poet, beautifully spins a ripping yarn that’s part family saga, part rollicking road-trip. Spanning the shtetls of former imperial Russia (and what’s now Ukraine) to Nethercott’s hometown of Brattleboro, Vermont, Thistlefoot resembles the vagabond whimsy of the author’s own life—she’s lived in Paris bookstores and peddled poems on the streets of New Orleans. Now, she lives next door to a cemetery.

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We interviewed Nethercott about her novel, which is this month’s Book Club pick.

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FODOR’S: Eastern European and Jewish folklore form the backbone of this book. Where and how did you first come across these myths and tales? And can you talk about what sort of impact they’ve had on you throughout your life?

GENNAROSE NETHERCOTT: You know, I don’t even remember where I first learned of Baba Yaga. I didn’t grow up with the stories—but I also feel like I’ve always known of her. Honestly, my primary area of expertise as a folklorist is in Scottish and New England lore. But when I decided to start working on this novel, I saw it as a lovely opportunity to learn more about my mother’s side of the family—the Russian Jewish half of me. 

That said, I’ve always loved Baba Yaga and particularly, the idea of her house on chicken legs. I’m a naturally restless person. All through my twenties, I was rarely in the same place for more than a few months. It was exciting and adventurous, but of course, made it hard to feel grounded, too, to feel a sense of community and home. But a house…with legs? Ah, what a dream! It’s a home you never have to leave…because it’s coming with you.

GennaRose NethercottKirk Murphy

There are many, many Old World tales spun throughout Thistlefoot—children born from rugelach and teeth; the legend of Baba Yaga; of course, Thistlefoot itself. Some are actual folk stories—but are others invented? Or are they all based on lore?

It’s a blend. The children born from teeth are my own—but many of the details throughout do come from lore. For the most part, the stories themselves are new inventions, but the images and characters within those stories are traditional. For example, there’s a Jewish folktale about a demon with an eternally lengthening arm—who, in my version, meets Baba Yaga in the village square. In the original, however, this figure has nothing to do with Baba Yaga. And in fact, Baba Yaga is not a Jewish character at all—unlike in Thistlefoot, where she’s a Jewish woman living in a shtetl in 1919. 

What’s exciting to me about working with folklore is its malleability. These are stories and characters and motifs that have already shape-shifted a hundred thousand times before I ever laid my hands on them. So to let new stories spring from the old well waters feels like a natural part of the process. This is how folklore evolves. It is constantly wriggling and reinventing itself, lending itself to new contexts—while still retaining its identity. 

Were there any folk tales that you wanted to include in the book, but they either couldn’t fit into the narrative or simply didn’t work?

Ooo, yes actually! There were a few broader American folktales I was hoping to weave into Isaac and Bellatine’s cross-country journey, but had to leave out because they never ended up visiting those particular states. One, in particular, is a story from near where my cousins live, in Oregon, set in the age of westward expansion and the Oregon Trail. As my cousin told it to me:

A wagon train had finally come to the end of a long, rough migration, arriving at its destination in the west. The families were ragged and half-starved from the journey—but there, right in the middle of their new land, stood a peach tree heavy with fruit. Two little girls from the wagon train ran over and ate as many peaches as they could reach. They gorged themselves on peaches, their hands and faces sticky with juice from the sweetest fruit they’d ever tasted. But…having gone so long without a proper meal, the peaches made them so sick, that they died. They say the Peach Girls still haunt the tree to this day.

I wish I had gotten the Peach Girls in there! I’ll have to save them for another project.

How personal is this book? Do you have roots in Gendenkrova, in the Smilianksy district of the Cherkasy region of Imperial Russia—where Baba Yaga lives in the novel?

Gedenkrovka is an invented shtetl—whose name came from gedenk (“remember” in Yiddish) and krov (“blood” in Russian). That said, everything that happens there is based on events that transpired in a real shtetl called Rotmistrivka. And yes, my mother’s side of the family is from there. My great-grandmother, who I’m named for, came of age in Rotmistrivka before her parents put her on a ship to America—never to see her family or her home again.

The timing of your novel’s release has coincided with the horrific invasion of Ukraine. The Yaga family is descended from what is now Ukraine. Have you spent much time in the country? If so, what were your impressions? Can you talk a little about this?

I deeply wish this book hadn’t ended up being as timely as it is. It was surreal, to have spent the last few years researching Ukrainian/Russian history, and the many violences that the Russian government perpetrated against the people there—and suddenly, to see these terrible memories repeating themselves in the present.

I’ve never had the chance to visit Ukraine, myself. It’s funny, the little challenges you run into when writing about a place you’ve never been. What weeds grow in the yard? What species of trees are most common (which, of course, determines the wood Thistlefoot’s floorboards and furniture can be built of)? Are the houses stone or brick or plaster? I ended up frantically scouring Google Maps images of the place, desperate to get it right. All said, I’d love to visit in person. It would be incredible to set foot in the place where my family—and the Yaga family—came from. 

Courtesy Penguin Random House

Place is huge in Thistlefoot. In addition to the Eastern European sections, much of the novel is set in a magically realistic contemporary U.S., including New Orleans and Brattleboro, Vermont. How did you choose your settings? Personal experience? The general ambiance lending to the plotting?

Well, I was born and raised in Brattleboro (and live there again now). And I spent around five years living on and off in New Orleans. I’ve also spent much of my life living itinerantly—whether traveling with a typewriter in my backpack writing poems-to-order on the street, or driving around with my family’s touring clown act (a story for another time…), or simply getting antsy and seeking greener pastures. So for much of the book, it was a “write what you know” sort of deal. Both in terms of actual location, and the locationless, hovering state of existence that Isaac and Bellatine inhabit while in motion. 

You were a writer in residence at Shakespeare & Co. Can you talk a little about your experience there? Were you a “tumbleweed”? 

Yes! I was a Tumbleweed back when I was 23 or 24 years old, I think. Tumbleweeds, for the uninitiated, are what the staff at Paris’ legendary bookstore Shakespeare & Company call the young, hapless writers they let sleep on the floor of the shop. For almost three months, I lived in the stacks. By day, we’d help out around the store. Open and close. Shelve books. I’d spend the afternoons tucked into a corner working on my first book, The Lumberjack’s Dove, while tourists tried to take my picture. In the evenings, we’d scrounge coins out of the wishing well in the middle of the bookshop floor and spend it on wine to drink by the Seine. It was all very romantic. It was cold and rainy, and we had no personal space. Everyone had a cough. I entertained the idea that maybe I was dying of consumption, possessed by the ghost of John Keats.

How did you end up living next to a cemetery in Vermont? And would you recommend others take up similar accommodations?

Oh, I just crawled out of my grave after one hundred years interred, and decided it was a nice neighborhood to stay in.

This particular cemetery contains some of my favorite pals: robber baron James Fisk, murdered by his mistress’ boyfriend. The two boys drowned in 1792, buried beneath a joined double headstone. Jacob Estey, the runaway orphan who became a pipe-organ-manufacturing mogul. And, of course: Winifred Hadley—who became a character in Thistlefoot

Should everyone live next to a cemetery? Only if you love a good time.

You formed the Traveling Poetry Emporium, a trio of traveling poets. I understand you’re booked at various events, but I’ve seen poets on typewriters in New Orleans before, and wondered if you’ve ever sat down in a city street as a poet for hire? If so, do you mind telling us a little about that experience?

For my first five years or so writing poems-to-order, I was a street poet. I traveled in Europe for four months shortly after college with a typewriter, collapsible table, lace tablecloth, and a flurry of signs all stuffed into my backpack. I’d unfurl my wares on the street of whatever city I’d landed in that day—and passersby could request a poem on any topic they wanted. Ferrets. Lost loves. Mothers’ birthdays. Eulogies. Tambourines. I’ve written ’em all. And yes, I did hawk my wares on the streets of New Orleans for a few years, too.

I had a difficult relationship with the practice, for a while. These poems, they come out fast, by necessity. People won’t wait all day for a masterpiece. So I often felt conflicted about the quality. But then—I realized, it really isn’t about the poem. In requesting a poem, people reveal something dear to them, some yearning or question or passion. My job is to become a mirror. To use a set of archetypes to reflect a person back to that person. And so, for just a few minutes, you can sit down across from me and feel seen. Who knows if these folks had a chance to feel that way in a while. The poem is just a vehicle. What this really is about is a moment of connection.

Yiddish is tossed around throughout Thistlefoot. It’s an extremely expressive language. Do you have a favorite go-to word or phrase? (My grandma was very fond of telling people, “A choleria,” or essentially, “You should get cholera.”)

I love “mensch.” A stand-up, solid fella. But hey, wishing intestinal disease on people is fun, too.

And lastly, as we’re a travel publication: What’s the ideal vacation someone should be on while reading Thistlefoot?

Read it while traveling to your ancestral homeland, or while hitchhiking across the vast, interlocking highways of America. Put out a thumb—who knows, you might just catch a ride from a walking house on chicken legs.

‘Thistlefoot’ by GennaRose Nethercott (published by Anchor/Penguin Random House) is available now in hardback, e-book, and audiobook