Synopses & Reviews
Richly imagined, gothically spooky, and replete with the ingenious storytelling ability of a born novelist, The Good Thief
introduces one of the most appealing young heroes in contemporary fiction and ratifies Hannah Tinti as one of our most exciting new talents.
Twelve year-old Ren is missing his left hand. How it was lost is a mystery that Ren has been trying to solve for his entire life, as well as who his parents are, and why he was abandoned as an infant at Saint Anthony's Orphanage for Boys. He longs for a family to call his own and is terrified of the day he will be sent alone into the world.
But then a young man named Benjamin Nab appears, claiming to be Ren's long-lost brother, and his convincing tale of how Ren lost his hand and his parents persuades the monks at the orphanage to release the boy and to give Ren some hope. But is Benjamin really who he says he is? Journeying through a New England of whaling towns and meadowed farmlands, Ren is introduced to a vibrant world of hardscrabble adventure filled with outrageous scam artists, grave robbers, and petty thieves. If he stays, Ren becomes one of them. If he goes, he's lost once again. As Ren begins to find clues to his hidden parentage he comes to suspect that Benjamin not only holds the key to his future, but to his past as well.
"Set in New England, presumably in the 19th century, Tinti's Disney-ready first novel (after story collection Animal Crackers) follows one-handed orphan Ren's not quite rags-to-riches tale. Ren, with his love for religion and penchant for thievery, is immediately likable, and when rugged, tall-tale spinning con man Benjamin Nab strolls into Ren's orphanage one day and claims Ren as his brother, it seems too good to be true, and it is. Benjamin, along with boozy partner-in-crime Tom, lead Ren throughout New England, using the endearing, crippled orphan to 'open doors' and make their hustling life easier. When they finally end up in North Umbrage, a town that looms large in Benjamin's past, the trio's luck dries up, and Ren must decide who he can trust and what he is willing to sacrifice in order to have this family. For a novel full of scams, shams and underhanded deals and populated by hustlers, thieves and grave robbers, the sense of menace is muted, but as an adventure yarn with YA crossover appeal, it's tough to beat." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"[A] moody, twisty, and assured first novel....Tinti secures her place as one of the sharpest, slyest young American novelists. (Grade: A-)" Entertainment Weekly
"Marvelously satisfying...rich with sensory details, surprising twists and living, breathing characters to root for." Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)
"In her highly original debut novel, [Tinti] renders the horrors and wonders she concocts utterly believable and rich in implication as she creates a darkly comedic and bewitching, sinister yet life-affirming tale about the eternal battle between good and evil." Booklist (Starred Review)
"Hannah Tinti has written a lightning strike of a novel beautiful and haunting and ever so bright. She is a 21st century Robert Louis Stevenson, an adventuress who lays bare her characters' hearts with a precision and a fearlessness that will leave you shaken." Junot Diaz,
Pulitzer-Prize winning author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
"Every once in a while if you are very lucky you come upon a novel so marvelous and enchanting and rare that you wish everyone in the world would read it, as well. The Good Thief is just such a book a beautifully composed work of literary magic." Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love
"[T]he reader can find plain-spoken fiction full of traditional virtues: strong plotting, pure lucidity, visceral momentum and a total absence of writerly mannerisms....Ms. Tinti has a surprising talent of her own. It will interest many." Janet Maslin, The New York Times
"The Good Thief's characters are weird and wonderful, its setting and tale every bit as macabre as those in Tinti's short-story collection, Animal Crackers. All of that, along with its humor, ingenuity and fast pace, make The Good Thief compelling." San Francisco Chronicle
"The Good Thief instantly transports us into another time and place and creates adventure without romanticism: no mean feat. Tinti's imaginative powers, as manifested through those of her creation, Ren, reacquaint us with our own. And that's a gift to be cherished by readers of any age." The Boston Globe
"[A] refreshing fairy tale, a delightful piece with both Charles Dickens and J.K. Rowling at heart....The story is whimsical, but the narrative world Tinti paints is complex and full of deception." Philadelphia Inquirer
"Tinti is lavish with her storytelling gifts — which are prodigious....You can't push too hard at the logic of some of the novel's events, but you wouldn't want to: they're there for the mystery, for the beauty and terror of the images, and for the way they appeal to desire in their audience." Maile Meloy, The New York Times Book Review
"Hannah Tinti's novel The Good Thief is wry, wise, deeply felt and ingeniously plotted, a wonderful, riveting spin on the tale of abandoned boys gone bad, or good, or both. Move over Huck Finn and Oliver Twist, make room for Ren, The Good Thief's one handed but quick fingered and witted orphan, thief, hero I loved him, and his book." Brock Clarke, author of An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England
"The Good Thief is a book that deserves comparison to the work of classic authors like Robert Louis Stevenson
and Charles Dickens." Dan Chaon,
National Book Award finalist and author of
Among the Missing and You Remind Me of Me
"The Good Thief is a magical book. Everything worth writing about is in it: love, death and more than anything else family. I wish I'd written it." Daniel Wallace, author of Big Fish and Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician
"This wonderfully old-fashioned novel, rendered with great heart and imagination, demonstrates that Hannah Tinti's talents are as awe-inspiring as the story she tells. Tinti is a formidable writer, and The Good Thief is a stay-up-all-night sort of read." Brady Udall, author of The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint
A Dickensian cast of characters in 19th-century New England comes brilliantly to life in this wondrous debut novel about an orphaned boy and the colorful con man who claims to be his brother.
About the Author
Hannah Tinti's work has appeared in magazines and anthologies, including The Best American Mystery Stories 2003. Her short-story collection, Animal Crackers, has been sold in fifteen countries, and was a runner-up for the PEN/Hemingway Award. She is the editor of One Story magazine.
Reading Group Guide
A tantalizing blend of brilliant ingenuity and spooky, gothic twists, The Good Thief
tells the mesmerizing story of a child named Ren, whose past is a mystery and whose future lies in the hands of a skilled con artist. Abandoned as an infant at St. Anthony’s Orphanage, Ren was steeped in Catholic ritual and admonitions against sin. By the time he is twelve years old, several of the other boys have been adopted, but prospects are slim for Ren; he is missing his left hand, an injury experienced early on, even before he arrived at St. Anthony’s. When Benjamin Nab arrives, claiming to be Ren’s long-lost brother, he transforms this mark of misfortune into a lucrative scam, whisking Ren into the world of scenic New England farmland and towns populated by trusting villagers: a prime location for a gritty underbelly of grave robbing and other dark trades. But as their hardscrabble adventures unfold, Ren begins to suspect that this fast-talking charlatan holds the key to one important truth: who Ren really is, and whether he can be reunited with the loving mother he has always dreamed of.
The questions and discussion topics that follow are intended to enhance your reading of Hannah Tinti’s The Good Thief. We hope they will enrich your experience of this extraordinary novel.
1. How do the time period and the locale shape the novel? How did the needy and the sly fare in rural America before the twentieth century? What historical aspects of The Good Thief surprised you the most?
2. What were your impressions of St. Anthony’s? What were the motivations of Father John and the brothers who cared for Ren there? Were they cruel, or simply realistic?
3. Did you believe the story Benjamin told when he took Ren from St. Anthony’s? Would you have fallen for the scams they ran? What vulnerabilities did they prey on? What is the key to being a successful scoundrel?
4. What did Lives of the Saints mean to Ren before and after he left St. Anthony’s? How did his feelings about religion change throughout the novel? How did his early lessons in sin, penance, and ritual serve him in the real world?
5. What enabled Benjamin and Tom to engage in grave robbing without feeling repulsed? Can their practical logic be justified? What is the emotional value of the possessions of the dead?
6. In chapter fourteen, Doctor Milton lets Ren see his scarred skin under a microscope. What changes for Ren in that encounter? How did his injury affect his life in different ways throughout the novel? How did you react when you discovered how his hand had been severed?
7. The Harelip, Mrs. Sands and Sister Agnes all seem powerful and skilled in different ways, but don’t fit traditional female archetypes of wives or mothers. How are women represented in The Good Thief? How do these women affect Ren’s story?
8. In what ways is Ren wiser than Brom and Ichy? What makes him better prepared for life on the lam?
9. What does Dolly teach Ren about himself, and about the nature of death and darkness in the world? What effect does Ren have on Dolly?
10. Discuss the images Ren had created of an ideal mother as someone beautiful who could provide comfort, a warm bed, and good cooking. How does Sister Agnes help him cope with the reality of his mother? Should he have been sheltered from knowing the truth? How does Mrs. Sands fulfill or not fulfill the role of mother for Ren?
11. What is the source of McGinty’s sadism and bitterness? What did it take to defeat him?
12. Early in the novel, Benjamin and Tom discover Ren’s ease with trickery and declare that he is already one of them. Did he possess these skills innately, or were they the result of having to survive at St. Anthony’s? How much control over his destiny did Ren have? Did nature or nurture have the greater role in his approach to the world?
13. Discuss the title. What makes a good thief—either in terms of being a noble thief, or a skillful one? Can this be applied to the epigraph from Emerson, describing the rewards available to a good “trapper”? And how does this relate to the biblical story of the “good thief,” who was crucified with Jesus Christ on Golgotha?
14. What innovative approaches to storytelling appear in both The Good Thief and Hannah Tinti’s short-fiction collection, Animal Crackers?
Q&A with Hannah Tinti about her new novel, The Good Thief
Why did you decide to set your novel in New England?
I wanted The Good Thief to take place in America in the 1800s, and New England felt like the perfect place. I grew up in Salem, Massachusetts–famous for the witch trials and as the birthplace of Nathaniel Hawthorne–so stepping into the time period was actually quite natural for me. Most of the houses in the neighborhood where I grew up were built in the 1700s and 1800s, and it was not unusual to have a back staircase, or fireplaces in nearly every room, low ceilings or small latched pantry doors. Whenever my family worked outside in our small garden, we were constantly digging up things from the past–fragments of blue and white china plates, broken clay pipes, or crushed shells that used to line the path to a neighboring carriage house. Once, my grandmother found a Spanish Reale from the 1700s. This unearthing of tangible history, and being conscious every day of the people who have lived in places before you is something common in Europe and other parts of the world, but in America it is more unusual. In any event, it made a lasting impression on me, and has certainly wound its way throughout The Good Thief.
How did you come up with the title The Good Thief?
Originally I had planned to call the book Resurrection Men. Then, for a number of reasons, I had to change it. I was at a loss for a long time, and nothing seemed appropriate. Finally, I gave an early draft of the novel to my mother, who worked for many years as a librarian and has read more books than anyone else I know. She came up with The Good Thief, and as soon as she said it I knew it was the right title. There is a lot of stealing going on throughout the book, with mixed intentions and results. I also liked the biblical reference of the Good Thief (also known as Saint Dismas), who was one of the men crucified with Jesus Christ on Golgotha. His story is one of redemption, at the very last minute, and that suits this novel perfectly.
What are ‘Resurrection Men’?
A number of years ago I was given a copy of Jeffrey Kacirk’s Forgotten English, a collection of words that have fallen out of use in the English language. One of the words was “Resurrection Men," and it included a brief description of what the word meant:
“Body-snatchers, those who broke open the coffins of the newly buried to supply the demands of the surgical and medical schools. The first recorded instance of the practice was in 1742, and it flourished particularly until the passing of the Anatomy Act in 1832. The resurrectionist took the corpse naked, this being in law a misdemeanor, as opposed to a felony if garments were taken as well…First applied to Burke and Hare in 1829, who rifled graves to sell the bodies for dissection, and sometimes even murdered people for the same purpose.”–Ebenezer Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, excerpted by Jeffrey Kacirk in Forgotten English.
I was drawn to the moral murkiness of these resurrection men. They were doing something terrible–desecrating graves–but with the knowledge of the medical schools and partial acceptance from the law. These thieves did it for the money, but they also inadvertently saved others from dying by providing the test subjects doctors needed to further their science. I tore out the definition of "Resurrection Men," and pasted it into my journal with a note–possible novel? That was six years ago.
How did you come up with the character of Ren, and why does he have only one hand?
After learning the definition of Resurrection Men, a scene began to form in my head. It was a moonlit night, and a small boy was holding the reins of a horse and wagon outside a graveyard. I didn’t know anything about the boy, only that he was waiting for the resurrection men to bring the bodies, and that he was terrified. This was the first chapter I wrote of The Good Thief, and it became the center of the book.
Writing for me has always been an intuitive and mysterious process. As I expanded the scene, I began to describe the boy, and wrote that he was holding the reins of the horse with his right hand. But when I tried to say what he was doing with his left I faltered. Then I realized–he didn’t have a left hand. And suddenly the boy was alive. This is how I discovered Ren’s secret, and I used it to unlock his character. It answered so many questions about him–why he was alone, and how he might have fallen in with these dangerous men.
The Good Thief has been compared to the work of Robert Louis Stevenson and Charles Dickens. Did you set out to write an adventure tale?
It’s humbling to be compared with these master storytellers. Stevenson and Dickens were my heroes growing up, along with James Fenimore Cooper. I’m not sure if I set out purposely to write an adventure story, but I was certainly influenced by these great writers. Who could forget the scene in Kidnapped where David Balfour climbs the empty staircase and nearly falls? Or when Magwitch appears on the moor in Great Expectations? Whenever I felt daunted by the task before me (The Good Thief is my first novel), I went back to this important lesson–write something that you would like to read yourself–and tried to put it in motion on the page. Once I started it was hard to stop. I like to fall into books; to read about strange places and about characters who make me care deeply. I also like to be surprised at what’s going to happen next.
What is a wishing stone?
A wishing stone is a rock, usually found near water, with an unbroken white line circling it completely. It is good for one wish to come true. When I was a child I would collect them. Later, I was reintroduced to them at an important time in my life. At the beginning of The Good Thief, Ren comes into possession of one. It is his golden ticket, and this wish reverberates throughout the rest of the book, as do the stones themselves.