NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY
The New York Times Book Review • The Washington Post • San Francisco Chronicle • Kirkus Reviews
Winner of the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize and an American Library Association Alex Award
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.
Praise for The Good Thief
"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
"Darkly transporting . . . [In] The Good Thief, the reader can find plain-spoken fiction full of traditional virtues: strong plotting, pure lucidity, visceral momentum and a total absence of writerly mannerisms. In Ms. Tinti’s case that means an American Dickensian tale with touches of Harry Potterish whimsy, along with a macabre streak of spooky New England history."—New York Times
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Read an Excerpt
The man arrived after morning prayers. Word spread quickly that someone had come, and the boys of Saint Anthony’s elbowed each other and strained to catch a glimpse as he unhitched his horse and led it to the trough for drinking. The man’ s face was hard to make out, his hat pulled so far down that the brim nearly touched his nose. He tied the reins to a post and then stood there, patting the horse’s neck as it drank. The man waited, and the boys watched, and when the mare finally lifted its head, they saw the man lean forward, stroke the animal’s nose, and kiss it. Then he wiped his lips with the back of his hand, removed his hat, and made his way across the yard to the monastery.
Men often came for children. Sometimes it was for cheap labor, sometimes for a sense of doing good. The brothers of Saint Anthony’s would stand the orphans in a line, and the men would walk back and forth, inspecting. It was easy to tell what they were looking for by where their eyes went. Usually it was to boys almost fourteen, the taller ones, the loudest, the strongest. Then their eyes went down to the barely crawling, the stumbling two-year-olds—still untainted and fresh. This left the in-betweens—those who had lost their baby fat and curls but were not yet old enough to be helpful. These children were usually ill-tempered and had little to offer but lice and a bad case of the measles. Ren was one of them.
He had no memory of a beginning—of a mother or father, sister or brother. His life was simply there, at Saint Anthony’s, and what he remembered began in the middle of things—the smell of boiled sheets and lye; the taste of watery oatmeal; the feel of dropping a brick onto a piece of stone, watching the red pieces split off, then using those broken shards to write on the wall of the monastery, and being slapped for this, and being forced to wash the dust away with a cold, wet rag.
Ren’s name had been sewn into the collar of his nightshirt: three letters embroidered in dark blue thread. The cloth was made of good linen, and he had worn it until he was nearly two. After that it was taken away and given to a smaller child to wear. Ren learned to keep an eye on Edward, then James, then Nicholas—and corner them in the yard. He would pin the squirming child to the ground and examine the fading letters closely, wondering what kind of hand had worked them. The R and E were sewn boldly in a cross-stitch, but the N was thinner, slanting to the right, as if the person working the thread had rushed to complete the job. When the shirt wore thin, it was cut into bandages. Brother Joseph gave Ren the piece of collar with the letters, and the boy kept it underneath his pillow at night.
Ren watched now as the visitor waited on the steps of the priory. The man passed his hat back and forth in his hands, leaving damp marks along the felt. The door opened and he stepped inside. A few minutes later Brother Joseph came to gather the children, and said, “Get to the statue.”
The statue of Saint Anthony sat in the center of the yard. It was carved from marble, dressed in the robes of the Franciscan friars. The dome of Saint Anthony’s head was bald, with a halo circling his brow. In one hand he held a lily and in the other a small child wearing a crown. The child was holding out one palm in supplication and using the other to touch the saint’s cheek. There were times, when the sun receded in the afternoon and shadows played across the stone, that the touch looked more like a slap. This child was Jesus Christ, and the pairing was proof of Saint Anthony’s ability to carry messages to God. When a loaf of bread went missing from the kitchen, or Father John couldn’t find the keys to the chapel, the children were sent to the statue. Saint Anthony, Saint Anthony, come bring what I’ve lost back to me.
Catholics were rare in this part of New England. A local Irishman who’d made a fortune pressing cheap grapes into strong port had left his vineyard to the church in a desperate bid for heaven before he died. The brothers of Saint Anthony were sent to claim the land and build the monastery. They found themselves surrounded by Protestants, who, in the first month of their arrival, burned down the barn, fouled the well, and caught two brothers after dark on the road and sent them home tarred and feathered.
After praying for guidance, the brothers turned to the Irishman’s winepress, which was still intact and on the grounds. Plants were sent from Italy, and after some trial and error the brothers matched the right vine with their stony New England soil. Before long Saint Anthony’s became well-known for their particular vintage, which they aged in old wooden casks and used for their morning and evening masses. The unconsecrated wine was sold to the local taverns and also to individual landowners, who sent their servants to collect the bottles in the night so that their neighbors would not see them doing business with Catholics.
Soon after this the first child was left. Brother Joseph heard cries one morning before sunrise and opened the door to find a baby wrapped in a soiled dress. The second child was left in a bucket near the well. The third in a basket by the outhouse. Girls were collected every few months by the Sisters of Charity, who worked in a hospital some distance away. What happened to them, no one knew, but the boys were left at Saint Anthony’s, and before long the monastery had turned into a de facto orphanage for the bastard children of the local townspeople, who still occasionally tried to burn the place to the ground.
To control these attempts at arson, the brothers built a high brick wall around the property, which sloped and towered like a fortress along the road. At the bottom of the wooden gate that served as the entrance they cut a small swinging door, and it was through this tiny opening that the babies were pushed. Ren was told that he, too, had been pushed through this gate and found the following morning, covered in mud in the prior’s garden. It had rained the night before, and although Ren had no memory of the storm, he often wondered why he had been left in bad weather. It always led to the same conclusion: that whoever had dropped him off could not wait to be rid of him.
The gate was hinged to open one way—in. When Ren pushed at the tiny door with his finger, he could feel the strength of the wooden frame behind it. There was no handle on the children’s side, no groove to lift from underneath. The wood was heavy, thick, and old—a fine piece of oak planed years before from the woods beyond the orphanage. Ren liked to imagine he felt a pressure in return, a mother reaching back through, changing her mind, groping wildly, a thin white arm.
• • •
Underneath Saint Anthony’s statue the younger boys fidgeted and pushed, the older ones cleared their throats nervously. Brother Joseph walked down the line and straightened their clothes, or spit on his hand and scrubbed their faces, bumping his large stomach into the children who had fallen out of place. He pushed it now toward a six-year-old who had suddenly sprung a bloody nose from the excitement.
“Hide it quick,” he said, shielding the boy with his body. Across the yard Father John was solemnly approaching, and behind him was the man who had kissed the horse.
He was a farmer. Perhaps forty years old. His shoulders were strong, his fingers thick with calluses, his skin the color of rawhide from the sun. There was a rash of brown spots across his forehead and the backs of his hands. His face was not unkind, and his coat was clean, his shirt pressed white, his collar tight against his neck. A woman had dressed him. So there would be a wife. A mother.
The man began to make his way down the line. He paused before two blond boys, Brom and Ichy. They were also in-betweens, twins left three winters after Ren. Brom’s neck was thicker, by about two inches, and Ichy’s feet were longer, by about two inches, but beyond those distinguishing characteristics it was hard to tell the boys apart when they were standing still. It was only when they were out in the fields working, or throwing stones at a pine tree, or washing their faces in the morning that the differences became clear. Brom would splash a handful of water over his head and be done with it. Ichy would fold a handkerchief into fourths, dab it into the basin, then set to work carefully and slowly behind his ears.
It was said that no one would adopt Brom and Ichy because they were twins. One was sure to be unlucky. Second-borns were usually considered changelings and drowned right after birth. But no one knew who came first, Brom or Ichy, so there was no way to tell where the bad luck was coming from. What the brothers needed to do was separate, make themselves look as different as possible. Ren kept this information to himself. They were his only friends, and he did not want to lose them.
Reading Group 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 ?