About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Monday, July 19, 2010

#57 - The Good Thief

The Good Thief, by Hannah Tinti (New York: Dial Press, 2008)

Jacket summary: "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."

Opening line: "The man arrived after morning prayers."

My take: Pretty darned good for a picaresque, and this is saying a lot, as this isn't usually my favorite genre. Cliche though it may be, I can't help rooting for an orphans hard-luck story -- even when the orphan, like Ren, is a petty thief from the get-go. As an infant, the one-handed Ren was pushed through a hole in a Boston monastery wall by an anonymous stranger on a miserable, rainy night. Now, twelve years later, he's too old for those couples who occasionally come to the monastery seeking a child to raise on their own, and his missing hand renders him unsuitable for those who want an older lad to help with the farm work. Consequently, he's pretty much resigned to being sold off/ conscripted into the army once he's of age, and when Benjamin Nab suddenly appears, claiming to be his long-lost brother and planning to take Ren away, neither Ren nor Father Joseph ask too many questions.

And that's where the real adventure begins. While Ren may be an incorrigible thief (he even swipes Father John's Lives of the Saints on his way out the door, just because), he's downright saintly compared to Benjamin and his ex-schoolteacher crony, Tom. While the term may not have been widely used 200 years ago, take my word for it -- these guys defined the word "sleazeballs." They hop from town to town, running minor variations on the con du jour until the locals wise up; in one chapter, they sell a magical bottled elixir that's guaranteed to cure naughty children's misbehavior (which it does, seeing as it's laced heavily with opium). When they need a big score, they rob graves. This horrifies the Catholic-raised Ren, especially on his first excursion; as he stands guard in the getaway wagon, he sees one of the first corpses harvested that night start to sit up. Mr. Buried-Alive turns out to be Dolly, a tattered but unrepentant murderer. Inexplicably, Ren repeatedly convinces Benjamin and Tom to let Dolly live and not abandon them, and an odd friendship of sorts forms between the two.

Several factors kept me reading in spite of the grotesquerie, the foremost of which is that I was just plain curious about Ren's identity and past. The one clue he has is a scrap of collar, hand-embroidered with the letters "R E N," which he's carried on his person since it was found in his bassinet with him. We learn almost immediately that Benjamin's long-lost brother story is a ruse, and we don't know what to make of his next tale (he tells Tom that Ren is his son), but we know he's important somehow, and must have had some reason for picking Ren out of the orphans' lineup. Then, too, I couldn't decide whether to prepare myself for yet another "rogues with hearts of gold deep-down" ending, or just plain wonder what it would mean for this pair of old-school bad-asses to saddle themselves, over the course of the novel, with more and more human baggage: Ren, Dolly, a half-deaf landlady with a mysterious nighttime visitor, and a brace of inseparable orphan twins whose back story (their mother committed suicide) is at least as pathetic as Ren's own.

The Good Thief is a quick and entertaining read. Give it a try, even if you're not sure it's your cup of tea.

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