The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti

[ This Post May Contain Spoilers ] 

 I purchased The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti after seeing Tinti on a panel at the 2012 AWP conference this past year. (I talked about the awesome experience in this post.) And I finally got around to reading it last week. Only took me six months, but who’s counting?

It was a strange experience to read this book after seeing the author in person. More often than not, I found myself imagining the author writing the words as I was reading, making the choices about what the characters would do and eat in any given scene. Maybe it was because I first “discovered” her at a writing conference that my focus was very different from say, picking up  something I saw on the NYT best-seller list. From a craft standpoint, it was really cool. From a reading standpoint, it sometimes got in the way of me enjoying the story. Just something I noticed. Now onto the book!

The Good Thief is the story of the one-handed orphan, Ren, who is adopted by a thief, Benjamin, to be a pity-magnet in order to trick people into offering them handouts such as money, food and shelter. There is a cast of very colorful characters, including a drunken schoolteacher, a murderer-for-hire, and a dwarf, who get mixed up in a grave-robbing scheme under the nose of the local crime syndicate in a small New England town. Once the group is discovered, they are taken prisoner, beaten and threatened with death. Then things take an unusual turn and Ren learns about his family, his past, and who is real friends really are.

As I was reading, some definite comparisons come to  mind in terms of subject matter. Dickens and Twain, being significant ones with the whole orphan-thief thing going on. You’ll see this pretty frequently if you read any of the  Goodreads reviews or even the back cover. It is a pretty heavily-invited comparison, one that the author doesn’t shy away from, nor does she have to. While some of the tropes are familiar, Tinti definitely adds in a few of her own twists to make the story feel unique.

In terms of plot, t’s hard to discuss what happens in this book because of the unusual structure. I struggled to really get into things for the first 150 pages because it seems very procedural: boy gets adopted, boy doesn’t like his new “father,” boy grows to love his new lifestyle. There wasn’t anything to really create conflict or plot aside from an uncomfortable boy feeling uncomfortable. That is….until a corpse seemingly comes to life. And even then, it’s a very small catalyst for action and doesn’t have much baring on what becomes the ultimate conflict–that some guy recognized the one-handed orphan as his dead sister’s son and is still pissed at the unknown father for knocking his sister up and wants revenge. And that doesn’t even come up until the last 50 pages or so. I guess the best way to describe this story is a “slow boil.” I didn’t necessarily dislike this because one the action started, I couldn’t stop reading, but getting there was slow-going and bit of a struggle.

I will say, however, that the characters drew me in much more than the plot. This is classic of what many dub “literary fiction.” The character drive the story for the first part of the book, and then slowly the plot and conflict begin to move the reader along. It’s definitely an interesting cast, as I mentioned before. You’ve got Ren’s fellows, the Twins, and their newly adopted father, who as a group are probably my favorite. The murderer-for-hire and the dwarf play their parts, but they also seemed sort of tacked on to include interesting and different people. Nothing rang untrue about them, but their integration into the story didn’t feel critical, as though things could have happened just the same without them.

One character that stood out to me as really interesting but not on the page nearly enough was the doctor who paid the men to dig up corpses for him. He was a little scary, practical, but oddly trustworthy.  And then there is Ren’s “adoptive” father, Benjamin. He is an interesting guy as well, but his lies and deceitful stories are much more fascinating than his honest reveal at the end.

That’s another thing–the end. I just couldn’t get behind this coincidental situation where Ren learns about his family and how he lost his hand. There are so many places in New England they could have gone after picking this kid up from the orphanage. Why this place? To make the story work, of course, but still. Actually, this wouldn’t have bothered me so much except for the fact that for the first two parts of the story, I didn’t really care who Ren’s parents were or why he lost his hand. I was willing to just accept that he is a one-handed orphan that is good at stealing things, and so was he. Why did the big conflict of the story surround him learning his past? There didn’t seem to be a good reason for it aside from it was a question that could be answered, not one that had to be answered.

That being said, this book is absolutely beautiful. Tinti is a fantastic writer. Her scenes really stand out as authentic and provide a conscious portrayal of details using all the senses. Even in the beginning when I was craving plot and slugging along, I could appreciate the words on the page as being carefully chosen and expertly arranged. This book is a really nice mix of YA historical fiction, classic themes, an exciting plot (once you get there) and literary awareness.

I’m looking forward to reading Tinti’s collection of short stories, Animal Crackers.

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