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Book Review

In 'Good Thief,' an orphan finds a dark calling

By Julie Wittes Schlack
September 18, 2008
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The Good Thief
By Hannah Tinti
Dial, 327 pp., $25

In a New York Times Book Review essay that appeared in July, Margo Rabb explored the "increasingly porous border" between adult and young adult fiction, and bemoaned the lack of respect shown toward authors of the latter. This condescension - and its implications for where a book gets shelved in stores and how many copies it consequently sells - may explain why Hannah Tinti's debut novel, "The Good Thief," was not classified as young adult reading. I can only imagine that agent and marketer agreed that this book was simply too good and too rich with commercial potential to be limited to the YA section.

But regardless of whether "The Good Thief" was written as an adult book that can be appreciated by teenagers or a teenage book that can be appreciated by adults (which is how I read it), it is a very good book indeed. Set in 19th-century New England, this story of an orphan, the pair of scoundrels who "adopt" him, and the adventures that eventually lead him to an understanding of his past is the kind of simple, focused, and well-paced novel that reminds you of why you fell in love with reading in the first place.

Twelve-year-old Ren has grown up in St. Anthony's Orphanage, and in a time when orphans are assessed in terms of their labor potential, his chances of being adopted are unlikely. That's because instead of a left hand, Ren has only "a piece of skin pulled neatly over the bone and sewn crookedly in the shape of a V."

So when Benjamin Nab, a handsome young veteran, materializes at the orphanage one day claiming to be his long-lost older brother, Ren allows himself to believe that his prayers for a family have been answered. However, he quickly learns that a stable home and hearth are not in the cards. Benjamin and his partner Tom are con men who recognize the value of a crippled child in advancing their scams. And though morally queasy at what he is required to do, Ren is a natural thief, having stolen and hoarded odd small treasures for as long as he can remember.

The crew's crimes are not violent, but they are also not good fun. When their quest for funds takes them to the marvelously named North Umbrage, their escapades take an increasingly grim turn. Once a mining town, North Umbrage is now populated almost exclusively by the widows and daughters of men lost in a mining accident years earlier, and dominated by McGinty's mousetrap factory.

Here Ren encounters a giant, a dwarf, a crude but brave hare-lipped girl, a crew of mysterious and frightening men, a nun, and a deaf boardinghouse landlady - a striking cast of characters that inevitably evoke Fagin, Oliver Twist, and others from the Dickens catalog of criminals, victims, and plucky heroes. Indeed, almost everything about "The Good Thief" is Dickensian except the writing, which is as precise and pithy as Dickens's is elaborate and prolonged.

If there is any weakness to this novel, it's that it's a little too compact. The characters lack dimension - forgivable since this is primarily a novel of plot, place, and longing - and the climax compresses revelations and resolutions at a pace that crosses the line from brisk to rushed.

But these are minor complaints. "The Good Thief" instantly transports us into another time and place and creates adventure without romanticism: no mean feat. Tinti's imaginative powers, as manifested through those of her creation, Ren, reacquaint us with our own. And that's a gift to be cherished by readers of any age.

Julie Wittes Schlack is a Cambridge-based writer and facilitator of online communities.

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