Life at the orphanage is pretty horrible for 12-year-old Mary, so she’s thrilled when a super-nice lady appears, insisting that Mary is the only girl for her. Mary’s even more thrilled when it seems that the super-nice lady only wants to feed her delicious food, buy her pretty clothes, and give her plenty of time to read and play. It seems almost too good to be true. And, of course, it is. Or, at least, it might be.
With the help of her new friend, a magician’s son, Mary discovers that kindly Madame Z is really the notorious Baba Yaga of Russian folktales—and that Mary is likely to end up on Baba Yaga’s dinner table any day now. Mary knows she should fight back, but she’s torn—Madame Z is the first person to be truly kind to her since her brother and mother died in a terrible fire, and Mary can’t help thinking that Madame Z must love her a little bit, too. Not sure what to do, Mary enlists aid from Jacob and a talking cat to escape from Baba Yaga’s grasp, even though part of her has begun to think of that chicken-legged hut as her home.
The Door by the Staircase is an engaging middle grades fantasy book that deeply explores what makes a family. There are some scary parts—Baba Yaga is, as mentioned, fairly notorious—and some sad parts, especially the story of how Mary’s family died, leaving her in that lonely orphanage. It’s maybe a little spoiler-y to go into it knowing that Madame Z is Baba Yaga in disguise, but it seemed pretty obvious from the get-go, so I don’t think you lose anything knowing it in advance. It’s a little slow to pick up speed, but once the book gets going, it’s hard to put down—and Mary and Jacob are genuinely likable, complicated protagonists whose friendship grows and develops in a realistic way. Marsh does a good job of painting Madame Z so that we can understand both why Mary would want to get as far away from her as humanly possible and why she might want to stay with her forever.