Reality, with the volume turned up
GennaRose Nethercott

Reality, with the volume turned up

GennaRose Nethercott’s new book, ‘Thistlefoot,’ explores her family’s Russian Jewish heritage as a modern fairy tale using magical realism

BRATTLEBORO — Meeting author GennaRose Nethercott - albeit on Zoom - I felt as if she were taking my hand, inviting me to a cozy place, walking me into her story.

The interplay between reality and somewhere else is evident in her choice of words, the environments of her website, her book tour presentations, her essential character. I was struck not only by her confidence and accomplishments, but by a sense of whimsy and wisdom, by a depth of stories to be told.

Nethercott's debut novel, Thistlefoot (Knopf Anchor), will launch locally on Tuesday, Sept. 13, at the Hooker-Dunham Theater, 139 Main St.

A Guilford native, Nethercott, 31, is a 2009 graduate of Brattleboro Union High School where, she says, “I had so many wonderful, encouraging teachers - Susan Boardman in the English department, Michele Hood in the science department, Charlie McLoughlin (who has since passed away) in the social studies department: the list goes on.”

She matriculated at Hampshire College where, after a year studying supernatural folklore at Scotland's University of Edinburgh, she earned her bachelor's with a focus on creative writing and folklore. She tours internationally, performing from her works and composing poems-to-order for strangers on a 1952 Hermes Rocket typewriter.

Founder of the Traveling Poetry Emporium, a team of poets for hire, she's an associate producer at Grim & Mild Entertainment, where she conducts supernatural and historical research for its podcast Lore, described as “true life scary stories.”

Nethercott's mother, Helen Schepartz, is a psychotherapist, and her father, Michael Nethercott, is a man of the arts - theater maker, writer, storyteller, director, actor, and clown Like Thistlefoot's two central (human) characters, Isaac and Bellatine Yaga, Nethercott explains, she and her brother toured during their teenage summers in a family act with their father.

Touring, she says, is “in my blood,” from those days and into adulthood when, a few years ago, she retrofitted her Honda Fit as a camper. She'd sleep on one side while her puppets nested on the other for the long haul of a countrywide tour to promote her award-winning 2018 narrative poem, The Lumberjack's Dove (Ecco/HarperCollins)

“I grew up with my dad's travel stories, and I've always been restless,” Nethercott explains, so little surprise that Thistlefoot is a modern retelling of the Russian folk tale, Baba Yaga, about a trickster witch who lives in a house on chicken legs. “It's the best of both worlds - you have a home, but you don't have to sit still.”

Another tie to her female protagonist thus forged, she quotes what authors hear again and again: “Write what you know.”

* * *

While her father is Irish Catholic, Nethercott's mother is of Russian Jewish heritage, and her family's story forms the spine of Thistlefoot.

Traversing from the present back to the times of devastating pogroms - organized massacres of Jews - launched throughout Eastern Europe, Russia, and what's now Ukraine, Thistlefoot follows historical details in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

“It's a personal story,” says Nethercott.

Thistlefoot is “a book about generational trauma, the stories our ancestors lived through that we may not know affect us,” she says. “In learning about Isaac and Bellatine's past, I was learning about my own history,"

She elaborates, describing the book as “a modern fairy tale” and “magical realism.”

“I love magical realism as a genre, because it allows you to take the reality in which we live, and turn up the volume knob,” Nethercott says. “Logic becomes heightened. So suddenly, the emotional experience that characters are having can start to manifest tangibly, physically.”

“In the world of Thistlefoot, places that were sites of great suffering or sorrow become physically altered by that memory, that experience. In the case of the house [the titular character in Thistlefoot], she grows legs. In magical realism, our memories and feelings can grow embodied within the external landscape - not just our internal one.”

As the story opens, one feels set back in time - in days of sideshows and alluring con artists. But quickly we see that, no, we are in the present: the joys are in realtime, as are the many threats that linger over the lives of Isaac and Bellatine.

That stage is shared by episodes of the Yaga's past, their ancestral narratives. Crafting the unexpected, Nethercott paints characters rich in detail and nuance and depicts locales with highly tuned awareness.

Take the market where Yaga sells her eggs. We see, “Like all shtetls [small towns], the market is Gedenkrovka's heart. Anything you want, the market has it. Little wooden tchotchkes, smoked fish, floral shawls from Kyiv, heaps of fresh and dried fruit, carts full of sweet milk sloshing in aluminum cans.”

Nethercott spins us through another world with vivid description and allusion, then reels around to describe, for instance, the Thistlefoot dwelling as “the dream RV for haunted Jews.”

Throughout, too, she inserts pithy aphorisms to leave one pondering - like “the most useful people were always the ones who had something to lose” and “the fool will tell it all, I have no doubt.”

And she digs into her poet's toolbox to create a lyrical style of sensory landscapes: “They were blessed with a windless night. Isaac felt the stillness settle on his shoulder. The eye of a storm.”

An added bonus for local readers: the many places in and around Brattleboro which weave into Nethercott's story.

* * *

Not a fan of the typical, and often snoozy, book reading, Nethercott accompanies hers with puppetry: For her Lumberjack's Dove tour she engaged a 60-foot crankie panorama by area artist Maria Pugnetti.

“The crankie is best to pair with a reading,” Nethercott explains. “If you have an opportunity for whimsy and entrancement, crankies and other portable puppetry can fit the bill.”

For Thistlefoot, she already has a tour lined up, and it will take her to more than two dozen venues throughout the country for the better part of the fall, starting with her hometown.

“Just me and my puppets,” she says: “I can't wait to see the reactions when I sit down in a plane with my beautiful Baba Yaga puppet in my lap.” That puppet was created by Shoshana Bass, co-artistic director of Sandglass Theater in Putney.

Nethercott says that “my favorite collaborators are local.” Of course, she values her interactions and work with some pretty big publishers.

In the end, though, it's the local team that makes it happen.

And so, with another crankie panorama by Pugnetti on a device built by Gilbert Ruff of Guilford and with Bass's puppet, as well as her direction, the free event offers a book reading, book signing, and puppet show, with Nethercott animating chapters of Thistlefoot.

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