Hannah Tinti,
The Good Thief
(Dial Press, 2008)

The Good Thief is a work of historical fiction. Ren is an orphan, living in an orphanage at St. Anthony's monastery in 19th-century New England. When he was dropped off anonymously one night, he was about 1 year old and was missing his left hand, which appeared to have been cut cleanly off. Now, he is 11, and nobody chooses a one-handed orphan, as most of the families who come to adopt are seeking another boy to help out on the farm. Then, the seemingly-miraculous occurs; a young man comes to the orphanage, sees Ren and proclaims him to be his long-lost little brother. The young man, Benjamin, tells Ren and the monks the detailed story of how, when the family was homesteading out West, the Indians attacked, killed the parents, maimed Ren and left him to die. When Benjamin came back from hunting in the forest, he found the tragedy and did his best, as a teenager, to take care of Ren, but eventually could not. Upon hearing this story, the monks release release Ren to Benjamin so that he can start a new life.

But things are not always as they seem, and Benjamin is a prime example of that. Ren subsequently encounters scam artists, outright thievery, grave-robbing, black-market corpse-selling, children working in sweatshops and murder. Is this going to be his new life? Will he end up becoming Benjamin's trained accomplice? Will Benjamin survive his own scheming? Who is Benjamin really? Can Ren actually be a catalyst for positive change for the ragtag bunch of shady characters with whom he ends up living? And who is the grumpy dwarf who climbs down the chimney at Mrs. Sands' inn, anyway?

Author Hannah Tinti has previously edited a magazine and wrote one other book, a collection of short stories called Animal Crackers. Still, despite this unspectacular resume, she clearly knows how to write. She had me from the first page and never lost my attention. The characters are realistic, three-dimensional and quite colorful. While Ren did end up where I expected him to go, his route to that destination was completely unpredictable. I cannot recall a book where I have said, aloud, "What?!" this many times while reading. As the story unfolds, we do get to discover Ren's true past, but the unfolding is as complicated as it is credible. That is a hard balance to strike -- complicated and convoluted, yet believable -- but it is achieved here, and amazingly well.

I will never forget some of these characters, starting with Ren, who can be a very adept thief, while still struggling to move himself, and everyone about whom he cares, to a better path in life. Add to that Benjamin Nab, the cunning leader of the pack, who ends up not being at all what he seems to be; Mrs. Sands, whose interpersonal skills are quite lacking, but whose heart cannot be matched; Dolly, the compulsive murderer, who can also be a hero; the dwarf who lives on the roof, with his fabulous history and strange lifestyle; and Tom, Ben's drunkard sidekick, who ends up with a very, very different role in life by the end.

Is there such a thing as a perfect novel? I think that standards differ too much for anyone to ever agree that a book is perfect. The Good Thief comes close. My only quibble, and it is a minor one, relates to one character's accent. All the characters are from New England, but none have accents, save the one. The general absence of accents is fine, because I think it is an unnecessary difficulty to accurately capture accents in writing, and most attempts leave me annoyed. However, the villain, Silas McGinty, has a heavy Boston accent. Why? I found it distracting. Everyone else is a native of Vermont in this story, and maybe a Boston accent would stick out in that time and place, but why bother? Anyway, that is a pretty minor quibble for an otherwise marvelous story that is told beautifully and richly. The Good Thief stole my attention, my admiration and my heart.

I now rank this book as one of my five all-time favorites.

review by
Chris McCallister

23 May 2009

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