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Bookmarks Issue: 
37-Nov-Dec-2008
By: 
Hannah Tinti
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A-The Good ThiefHannah Tinti, cofounder and editor of One Story magazine and author of the short story collection Animal Crackers ( 4 of 5 Stars July/Aug 2004), successfully adapts Charles Dickens in this adventurous tale of a young orphan in 19th-century New England.

The Story: Ren, the 12-year-old protagonist of Tinti’s first novel, was left at a New England orphanage for boys as an infant. He has only two clues to his mysterious identity—a nightshirt with his initials embroidered on the collar, and a missing left hand. Such a disability makes his chances for farm work or for adoption unlikely; instead, he’ll be conscripted into the army. Then the strange, glib Benjamin Nab arrives on the doorstep, claiming to be Ren’s his long-lost brother with an outrageous tale involving evil Indians. Soon, Ren sets out with Benjamin on a journey that takes him into the worlds of crime, adventure, and, ultimately, the secrets of his past.
Dial Press. 327 pages. $25. ISBN: 0385337450

San Francisco Chronicle 4.5 of 5 Stars
"From the introduction of Ren, a lovable one-handed orphan with a talent for stealing, to its grim but satisfying conclusion, Hannah Tinti’s novel The Good Thief has all the makings of a classic—a hero, a villain and a rollicking good tale set in 19th century New England about a good boy who gets mixed up with a lot of bad men. … Ren’s an Oliver Twist at heart, which keeps the reader rooting for him even as he gets mixed up with a Dickensian cast of characters." Meghan Ward

Entertainment Weekly 4 of 5 Stars
"The first two-thirds of the novel read like a loose-jointed picaresque adventure, each episode vivid and surreal, if not appearing to lead anywhere important. But Tinti does have a final destination, however circuitously she might lead us there." Jennifer Reese

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Ren’s plight is creaky with sentimentality, but Tinti knows how to keep her balance as she steps through these hoary conventions of Victorian melodrama. … The key to Tinti’s success with this novel is the constant tension between tenderness and peril, a tension that she ratchets up until the final pages." Ron Charles

Guardian 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Although Tinti overdoes it slightly with the Gothic extremes and Dickensian caricatures, this a confident whirl of a read, with pathos and drama nicely juxtaposed. Proper storytelling, in fact." Catherine Taylor

New York Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"In addition to being a tale of strange and unpredictable adventure, this is a book about faith and redemption. And it is traditional enough to pull all these pieces together into a coherent tale. … Ms. Tinti has a surprising talent of her own." Janet Maslin

Critical Summary

Boasting a macabre setting, a fantastic adventure into the underworld of 19th-century New England, and a cast of characters Charles Dickens himself would be proud to claim, The Good Thief is an engaging tale from start to finish. With Ren essentially an "Oliver Twist at heart," readers will find themselves sympathetic even as he finds himself entangled with an odd assortment of villains. Known previously for her collection of short stories, Hannah Tinti has created a magical debut novel that is simultaneously humorous, uplifting, and "darkly transporting" (New York Times). And with this compelling work, concludes Entertainment Weekly, she "secures her place as one of the sharpest, slyest young American novelists."

Reading Guide

POTENTIAL SPOILER ALERT!

The Reading Guide below is supplied by the book's publisher, and plot points may be revealed. We recommend that read the book before reading the guide.

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 Saint 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 Saint 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 The Lives of the Saints mean to Ren before and after he left Saint 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 en- counter? 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 or 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 Saint 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 The Good Thief ?

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Dial Press. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.