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Saturday, February 1, 2014

The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti

Dial Press Trade Paperback, 386 pages, $15 (c2008)

Charles Dickens wrote a book or two about hapless orphan or disabled boys, boys found in terrible circumstances but of good heart. They are, of course, rewarded for their innocence and kindness in the end. But before they receive their just recompense, they must endure travails and tortures of the soul and body. All must be lost before anything can be found.

Hannah Tinti carries on that fine tradition of weep before wonder in The Good Thief. Her story takes place in New England in a purposely vague time and place, but not unlike Massachusetts in the late 1800s. Her orphan boy is called Ren, abandoned to fate and the monastery of St. Anthony’s as a baby. Unlike Tiny Tim’s crutch-free future intimated at the happy ending in A Christmas Carol, Ren’s lost left hand will never regrow.

When we first meet Ren he is 12 years old and is an inventive child with rudimentary emotions. However, he has learned to care for his best friends, fellow orphans Brom and Itchy. He knows he will never be chosen by the few adults who come through looking for someone to adopt. With his missing appendage, he is unlikely to be of much use on a farm or with a family needing a helper.

Then a miracle occurs. Benjamin Nab shows up and claims Ren as his long-lost, much younger brother! He tells an exciting and tragic tale of how their parents were killed by Indians. Ren escaped thanks to his mother but lost his hand in the process. Ben saved the baby but was parted from him soon after.

Not surprisingly, Ben’s story has a little stretch to it. Ren is not his brother. His parents were not massacred by Indians. They immediately begin to pull some scams. They are joined by an alcoholic ex-teacher, Tom. He promptly drinks his share of the proceeds of their cons. Is this what the good brothers of the monastery had in mind for Ren when they let him go? As hard as life was in the orphanage, the life of crime is worse.

Fable, history, adventure story — whatever it is, it works. The Good Thief is true storytelling. The villains, of which there are many, are dastardly. Within most of the non-villains, too, is a sly side. Anything can happen in this fantasyland/adventureland/yesterdayland. What Tinti does well is keep Ren’s voice true to that of a 12-year-old boy’s. It’s easy to feel his helplessness and innocence. It’s easy to root for him to find a home.

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