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In 'Thistlefoot,' GennaRose Nethercott explores painful history through folklore

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

We are going to spend the next few minutes exploring the ways folklore is used to understand real-life horrors and the way those horrors can follow generations. NPR's Mallory Yu brings us the story behind the new novel "Thistlefoot." It centers around an old crone, Baba Yaga, a figure in Slavic folklore for centuries. She is the kind of character who might lend you a magical candle or she might kill you and use your skull to decorate her house, one that walks on chicken legs. Yu spoke with author GennaRose Nethercott about reimagining Baba Yaga as a Jewish woman living in an Eastern European shtetl during a time of civil war and pogroms.

MALLORY YU, BYLINE: The story begins with a reunion between present-day American siblings Isaac and Bellatine Yaga after they've received word of a mysterious inheritance, which isn't land or money but...

GENNAROSE NETHERCOTT: A sentient house lofted up on a pair of chicken legs.

YU: That's author GennaRose Nethercott. As she writes, Bellatine falls in love with the house immediately and names it Thistlefoot. Isaac, the brother, just sees dollar signs, so he convinces his sister to take it on the road as a traveling puppet show. Nethercott says she's always wanted to explore the idea of being able to take her home anywhere she went. Then the question became...

NETHERCOTT: What does it look like when folklore and the past starts to leak into the present? How does the past and the present tangle?

YU: So the book dips often into the past when their ancestor Baba Yaga lived and the horrible night when her little town Gedenkrovka burned. These chapters are inspired by a real period in history, which for Nethercott is personal.

NETHERCOTT: My family on my mother's side is from a small Jewish shtetl in what is now Ukraine. And Gedenkrovka in the book - I basically just changed the name of the town, Rotmistrivka, where my family's from. And the historical events that we slowly learned happened to Gedenkrovka are actual historical events that happened to Rotmistrivka.

YU: Retelling her ancestral story was an intense experience. After finishing one particularly difficult scene, Nethercott says she burst into tears. Still, writing the book helped her recognize herself a little more.

NETHERCOTT: How much of our own little tics and anxieties and questions are something that we've inherited? I mean, it always helps to have an understanding of why we are the way we are.

YU: The siblings each have their own inherited quirks. For Isaac, it's a constant, itchy restlessness that keeps him on the run; for Bellatine, a supernatural ability that terrifies her.

NETHERCOTT: And they have no idea why they have them. And it's through kind of learning where those came from that they're able to heal.

YU: Now, "Thistlefoot" book does get dark and heavy, but it isn't dour, and that's thanks in large part to Thistlefoot, the house.

NETHERCOTT: (Reading) I'll tell you what came before. I'll recite it like a folk tale. These sorts of memories - they're easier to understand that way.

YU: See; the house is a voice in the book, too, guiding the reader through myth and legend. And like any good oral storyteller, its purpose is to make sure memory lives on.

NETHERCOTT: (Reading) The facts can change, place names, the color of a character's woolen coat, the particular flowers in a small, circular garden. But the core remains the same. So the folktale survives, assimilates and with it so survives the memory.

(Vocalizing).

YU: And GennaRose Nethercott is practicing that oral tradition herself. She's collaborated with puppeteers and other artist friends to bring her folktale alive through a puppet show she's taking to bookstores around the country.

NETHERCOTT: I'm going to let the house tell the next part of this story.

YU: Her puppet theater is a beautiful white box with blue window shutters cut into lace-like patterns and a little door in the roof that Nethercott speaks through as if Thistlefoot itself is speaking.

NETHERCOTT: (As Thistlefoot) Before I was a house, I was a baby chick cracked loose from an egg.

YU: She even has a Baba Yaga puppet who sits on the roof and talks to a little skeleton.

NETHERCOTT: (As Baba Yaga) Good morning, Reb Skeleton.

(As Reb Skeleton) Good morning, Baba Yaga.

You know, I couldn't let Isaac and Bellatine have all the puppetry fun. That just wouldn't be fair.

YU: It's folklore's ability to balance fun and solemnity, joy and suffering that Nethercott loves to study and write.

NETHERCOTT: It allows us to be playful and fun and, like, wide-eyed in awe. And it also allows us to address some things we may not have the ability to address otherwise.

YU: Including the memories that haunt each of us, whether we know it or not.

NETHERCOTT: (Vocalizing).

YU: Mallory Yu, NPR News.

NETHERCOTT: (Vocalizing). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.