Good ThiefThe Good Thief
by Hannah Tinti

My sister always used to send me souvenirs evocative of the places she visited — pressed sagebrush from Anasazi, shells from Vero Beach, a jar of water from the Seine. On her first trip to Ireland, maybe 15 years ago, she sent me a stone that she picked up on the shores of Lough Leane, a gray stone with a white seam encircling it. About ten years afterwards, I read The Good Thief for the first time. To the boys in this book, collecting pebbles in Saint Anthony’s orphanage, a stone encircled by a white ring is considered a wishing stone. I still have my Irish wishing stone sitting on the ledge of a bookshelf in my bedroom. Now, whenever I look at it, it makes me think not only of my sister and of Ireland, but also of this book that I love so well, and of all the thoughts it brings to my mind.

The plot and storytelling style are reminiscent of Dickens or Stevenson, two authors who have always been favorites with me. Tinti tells of Ren, a New England orphan boy in some unnamed year and town of the early 19th century. Ren has always lived with the monks of Saint Anthony’s since he was abandoned at their gate as a baby. His odds of ever being adopted are small, because he is missing a hand, lost in some unknown accident of his infancy. One day, a man claiming to be his older brother arrives to take him away, with a story of parents massacred in the same Indian attack that cut off Ren’s hand. Once Ren begins his travels with Benjamin Nab, however, and hears in rapid succession several other versions of his past, he realizes that Benjamin is a con man and thief, a teller of lies to suit any occasion, and that the story of their common family is a complete fiction. Benjamin chose Ren because his missing hand makes him a very effective “prop” in various con jobs, eliciting sympathy from Benjamin’s marks and suckers. Joined by Benjamin’s alcoholic buddy Tom, the trio set off across the New England countryside to live by lying, stealing, and swindling, with some turns into patent medicine sales and finally grave-robbing and body-snatching.

All of this makes the book sound dark and depressing, imprisoning a reader in the worst side of human nature. But surprisingly, it’s exactly the opposite. The mood of the book is one of buoyancy, of something eternally struggling to rise up out of the darkness into the light. It seems to affirm that the worth of every person, no matter how damaged and broken by the world, is beyond destruction, lying in a place that can always be seen by eyes that look with compassion and humility. Friendship and love can open closed doors, pity and loyalty can light the dark places, repentance and forgiveness can heal deep wounds. When I get to the end of this book, every time I’ve read it, I feel lifted up to see the bigger picture, above the dark details that tangle my feet and make me stumble.

There’s a scene in this book that took my breath away the first time I read it, and it still rings true. Ren has been invited to climb up the chimney to the hut on the roof, where the landlady’s bitter brother, a dwarf, lives a hermit’s life. When he arrives on the roof, Ren can see the entire town and surrounding countryside, including the places with dark memories.

The air was clearer here, the taste not as rancid as on the street. Ren thought of all he had done since he had left Saint Anthony’s, every step that had brought him to this place. Spread out before him, both the town and his own past seemed less frightening. Everything was better, Ren realized, when you looked down on it from above.

One of the recurring references in the novel is to the legend of Saint Anthony, finder of what is lost, who climbed towards wisdom and perspective from his perch in a tree. Ren’s lost past, his missing hand, his search for family, all connect with that hunger to find the lost. But also, there’s a sense of people themselves being lost. There is the lost-ness of their landlady Mrs. Sands, deaf and widowed, still listening for her husband buried under the earth in a mine collapse. There is the lost-ness of her brother the dwarf, rejected by society, rejecting society in turn. There’s the lostness of Dolly, a murderer-for-hire who can’t believe that he was made for anything but killing, buried alive only to be resurrected bewilderingly by grave-robbers. There’s the lost-ness of the mousetrap-factory girls, unwanted orphans whose lives seem made for nothing but daily labor at the assembly line. There’s the lost-ness of Tom, unable to escape the guilt for his friend’s suicide, lost in alcohol and cynicism. There’s the lost-ness of Benjamin, an always-chameleon, living so many lies and tall tales that his real self is so far buried as to almost no longer exist.

What does it take for all the lost people to stop being lost? What is it that finds us and saves us? I see two different answers running through the book, like two strands that twist together. One is human connection. At one point, Benjamin tells Ren, “You just can’t go around taking care of people. They’ll grow to depend on you, and then you won’t be able to leave them when you have to.” So many of the characters in this book have cast themselves adrift from other people as a sort of self-protection. Yet the more they separate themselves, thinking to be safer, the more lost and vulnerable they become. Only when they reach out to one another, open their eyes and see, listen and care, do they find the healing that had been eluding them in their self-sufficiency. Ren accepts responsibility for Dolly, Mrs Sands for her brother and for her tenants, Ren and Dolly for Mrs Sands when she is sick. When Tom brings Ren’s two friends Brom and Ichy from the orphanage and announces himself their new father, he is reconnecting with the human race in a life-giving plunge. When the mousetrap girl Ren had known only as “the harelip” risks herself to rescue him, Ren sees her as a person for the first time, and asks her name — Jenny.

The other strand of the life-saving rope in this book is repentance. When we see with new eyes, realize that we have done something wrong, and openly confess it, we are liberated from a prison. Truth does, indeed, set us free. When Ren abandoned Dolly in the graveyard after the bothched grave-robbery, he felt guilty about it. Yet the next time he met Dolly, he first attempted to explain, to excuse himself, to win Dolly’s forgiveness without confessing himself wrong. Dolly remained distant, until Ren suddenly surrendered to the truth. “You’re right. I left you. I’m sorry.” Those simple words were the words of healing. Similarly, when Mrs Sands returns from the hospital to find her house a wreck, when she begins lambasting them all with her broom, Ren’s first reaction is to skip away, to avoid punishment, to offer excuses. But when at last, he knelt before her and accepted the broom-lashing, apologizing and promising to stay and put the house to rights, there was also a sense of a relationship being put to rights.

In the end, Ren does find his family — but not the family he was looking for. The owner of the mousetrap factory had devoted his energy to ridding the world of unwanted creatures, but here we see the unwanted ones, the people the world had rejected as misfits, accepting and protecting each other. Tom, Brom and Ichy, Mrs Sands and her brother, Jenny and the other mousetrap girls, Dolly — even the resistant Benjamin who continues his flight out of the story — all the people Ren has accepted as dependents, all the people he has allowed himself to be dependent on — all the people he can’t just leave behind — are his family.

I’ve loved this book since I first read it, and tomorrow night I’ll finally get to discuss it with others who have read it, as the women of my book club have made it this month’s choice. Looking forward to seeing what fresh insights they will give me.