The Good Thief, by Hannah Tinti, is my running favorite out of all the books I’ve read this year. It is the sort of adventure that picks the reader up, introduces her to a broad spectrum of memorable characters, then races towards a creative and surprising conclusion. Throughout the adventure, Tinti also plays with the idea of morality — her good thief is a twelve-year-old orphan that is brought into a world of petty criminals and asked to do things that repeatedly test the morality of his religious upbringing. As Ren observes the bizarre workings of the adult world around him, he must decide where his own moral compass lies. Is it wrong to steal, if stealing feeds you? It is wrong to lie, if lying can save your life?
When the novel opens, Ren introduces us to the harsh world of the monastery that serves as his home. Although he has no parents, he has found some love in his friendships with the unlucky twins Brom and Ichy and with his relationships with the priests who raise the boys at the orphanage. Still, he longs for a family, as well as the answer to the questions of his origins. And, perhaps most curious at all, how did he lose his hand?
When Benjamin Nab arrives at St. Anthony’s and adopts him as his long-lost brother, Ren thinks he’s going to finally have some answers to his questions. But it quickly becomes apparent that Benjamin is a talented liar and shyster, who is dedicated to teaching Ren how to survive, at any cost.
“Don’t be a fool,” said Benjamin. “I’ve never been to India.” He bunched one of the blankets behind his head. “You better get some rest. We’ve got to be up in an hour or two.”
The boy took a step back. “But you said–“he began.
“I know what I said. Didn’t you listen? What did I tell you before we went inside?”
“You told me not to say anything.”
“And what else?”
“We needed a place to sleep. And now we have it. I told them what they wanted to hear so they’d give it to us. It’s as simple as that.”
Charming and quick-witted, Benjamin shows Ren how easily people are manipulated, but also the cost that comes from doing so. Benjamin, Ren and their partner Tom make their way to North Umbrage, where they become involved in stealing bodies for a local doctor — a vastly more profitable enterprise than the petty thievery that they’d been surviving on. They rent rooms from a Mrs. Sands, a youthful widow with a hearing problem, who quickly steps as the mother that Ren longed for. But her world is just as mystical as the other adults in Ren’s life, and her house is filled with mousetrap girls, a mysterious nightly visitor and stories of a drowned boy that give Ren more questions than answers. When the hired thugs of the local robber baron discover their nocturnal activities, Ren and his friends finally face very real consequences for their crimes — and Ren discovers that getting what you’ve wished for is not always what you need.
The frogs were out. Earlier it had rained, and now as the wagon passed the marshes in the dark, there was a chorus of syncopated croaking. Benjamin sat in the driver’s seat, a lantern balanced on the floor. Tom was beside him and Dolly and the boys were in the back, clinging to the sides as they bounced over holes in the rocky path. The horse strained through the night against the weight of them all. Every half-mile she stopped, as if she had given up completely. Benjamin flicked the whip, and the mare trudged on.
“Where are we going?” Ichy whispered.
Ren glanced at Benjamin and Tom, their shoulders hunched together in the darkness. “Fishing,” he said.
It is this sense of the mystical crossed with the mundane ordinariness of day-to-day life that makes Tinti’s storytelling so enjoyable. She captures the setting well, using the picturesque backgrounds of early rural New England to create a world where her outlandish characters seem right at home. Ren’s earnestness is delightful, as he comes to love the scoundrels that he’s fallen in with as the family that he never had. Equal parts coming-of-age story and adventure novel, The Good Thief is a book that is hard to put down.
- Publisher: The Dial Press
- Publish Date: August 26, 2008
- Hardcover: 327 pages
- ISBN: 0385337450
- Language: English
- Rating: 5 of 5 stars