I recently finished Hannah Tinti’s The Good Thief. I chose it for one selfish reason: I too am writing a novel about a kindhearted thief. Though my protagonist, Leo, doesn’t appear in my series of fictional stories until long after his twin siblings, Duke and Trinity, have had their stories. Still, I thought it was important to start brushing up on learning the techniques about what gives heart to these types of characters who do wrong but are still found lovable.
I’m pleased to say Tinti’s novel did not disappoint. And dare I say I also discovered a new author that I absolutely LOVE! The following is a review I wrote for this quite treasured novel of hers. Obviously there will be spoilers. And while this may stray some from the fantasy genre, I believe it is superbly crafted YA literature. Since my own works of fiction are considered YA Fantasy, I don’t think I’m cheating here. You know, in the unwritten rules of this platform.
And speaking of platforms…
There’s still time to get in on this month’s giveaway. This month you can win yourself a beautiful copy of Frank Miller’s and Thomas Wheeler’s Fantasy novel Cursed.
In addition, you get yourself a Starbucks card. Coffee and a book is truly a paradise vacation for introverts like me. Although if I’m being completely honest, I’m more of a tea man myself. Coffee has let me down before.
So again, to win all you have to do is leave yourself a comment on a story or posting from the month of January. Be sure to read my featured story this month, Submerged (found here at https://danielgatlin.com/2020/01/15/submerged/). Leave a comment there too, and don’t be afraid to share it with all your friends. I’m very thrilled with the artwork there.
Alright…shameless plugs aside. Let’s get to reviewing this gem:
The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti: A book review by Daniel Gatlin
What marks the beginning of the end for our innocence? Is it an age we reach, or perhaps a moment when we realize the world is not what we were told in the safety of our own four walls? Hannah Tinti’s The Good Thief examines this question and theme with the use of flawed but enjoyable characters, and with some biting truths. Her contemporary work of fiction has received much acclaim, and even praise by other such renowned authors as Junot Diaz and Daniel Wallace. Tinti takes a hard look at the bleak world of the late nineteenth century’s New England, but she does so with heart and even a little humor.
Though the novel was often dark at times, Tinti introduces us to a protagonist as enduring as Huck Finn. Ren—a young orphan raised in a Catholic orphanage—has all the makings of a protagonist we can commiserate with. We see the flaws of his world and question the morals which he is being raised to believe. No one seems to care about Ren’s eventual fate to end up as a young soldier, since we are told from the very beginning of the novel that his chances of being adopted are slim due to his physical flaw: a missing hand.
Our hearts sink as we watch Ren passed over during the adoption process, with the harsh lines, “The farmer tried not to react, but Ren could see the disgust hidden in his face as he turned away and moved down the line” (9). What we can love about Ren though is that he does not ever seem to lose hope completely. He uses his deformity as a gain. Since most people cast him off immediately, he learns (quite successfully) how to become a thief during his time at the orphanage. It’s hard not to enjoy the delicious irony of watching Ren learn his earliest criminal ways while at a religious institute.
By a convenient twist of fate, Ren is not bound for the life of unadopted orphans after all. He is taken in by a con man named Benjamin, who also sees the benefits of having a boy with a deformity. Benjamin can trick everyone he meets with an air of suaveness and just the right amount of pathos. This story starts to feel not unlike Paper Moon, which is a famous movie example where eight-year-old Tatum O’Neal teams up with a con man to sell phony Bibles to unsuspecting folk. Ren becomes the helpless looking child that people feel sorry for, and Benjamin takes advantage duly. Ren eventually meets up with Benjamin’s partner in crime, Tom, and the three of them begin to pull off jobs all around New England. It doesn’t take Benjamin or Tom long to realize they have adopted a boy who is not so different from them. Benjamin delights us when he realizes of Ren that, “‘He’s already one of us’” (75)
Along the way as the three thieves turn from pulling cons to literal graverobbing, Ren starts to question his choices and feels guilt for some of the situations which he finds himself in. This includes digging up a giant named Dolly who wasn’t in fact dead at all. Dolly confesses himself a murderer, but nevertheless Ren and the giant man start to become closer. He also encounters other strange but very real-feeling characters. Mrs. Sands, the landlady, becomes a sort of caretaker to Ren, which is important for a boy who desperately craves a mother figure. Tinti chooses to write Mrs. Sands’ lines in all caps because, “There’d been an accident with a gun when she was a girl, and afterward she could read what people were saying from their lips, but she couldn’t hear herself talking back” (105). I felt this was an odd and almost out-of-place choice for the style of the novel, but nevertheless Mrs. Sands becomes an enjoyable and often humorous presence within the work. Ren also encounters a girl with a harelip, a dwarf who comes down the chimney, and his two best mates from the orphanage named Brom and Ichy. We also meet the main antagonist of the book. A man named McGinty. Though he isn’t really introduced to us until the latter half of the book, he still becomes a menacing figure which Ren and the others must contend with.
I feel Ren never tries to justify the criminal actions of the adults in his world. He knows what they are doing is wrong, and he knows he is just as likely as them to hang for breaking the law repeatedly. Still, Ren has tender moments in the novel where he can connect with the men and women he encounters. He even begins to look upon them like they are his own family. The novel ends with Ren much better off than where he had begun, but I believe what is so important is that Ren doesn’t seem to lose that quality which makes him innocent. Despite his upbringing, the theme of innocence is never completely lost for this young child, because he is the title “good thief.” He steals because this is what he has learned he must do in this world to survive. The bonds with his adopted family become genuine, because they are all imperfect. Hannah Tinti does not shy away from the horrors of this setting. At any minute we the reader feel Ren’s story could end with a slit throat or a rope around his neck. However, she can show hope in the despair, and I believe therefore she is worthy of the praise she is receiving for this novel.
I’ve not read other novels by Tinti yet, but she writes an exceptional yarn in the contemporary genre, and you can definitely see some of the influences of other great adventure novels like Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. The Good Thief appeals to me on a logical level more than an emotional one. I can appreciate how Hannah Tinti can take the plight of a young boy and incorporate timeless elements like dangerous settings and lovable scoundrels to tell a story that modern audiences can invest into. This is what good writers do. She is not of that time period, but she invents and creates a story which we can then learn from and see how we too can tell stories from time periods of the past, without feeling like we’re writing a history lesson. I don’t know if I’d necessarily recommend this as a young adult read, but I think many a young person could spend hours in Tinti’s fictional New England, and I would not be surprised at all to see this novel as part of a curriculum for high-school age children soon. The Good Thief…a good read!
Tinti, Hannah. The Good Thief. New York: The Dial Press, 2009.