Review of The Good Thief by Ron Charles (for the Washington Post Sunday, August 31, 2008)
It may be too quaint to imagine there are still families reading aloud together at night (so many Web sites, so little time), but if you're out there, consider Hannah Tinti's charming first novel. Set in the dark woods of 19th-century New England, The Good Thief follows a bright, one-handed orphan through enough harrowing scrapes and turns to satisfy your inner Dickens. That Tinti is the young co-founder and editor of super-hip One Story magazine makes the arrival of this old-fashioned adventure all the more surprising.
Her hero is a tender but wary 12-year-old named Ren, who's lived in the Saint Anthony's orphanage since he was dropped off during the night as an infant. Every few months, he and his buddies line up for anyone who might want a child or a cheap laborer. The boys know that if they don't get adopted by neighborhood farmers they'll eventually be consigned to the army and certain death. But who would want a one-handed child?
Ren's plight is creaky with sentimentality, but Tinti knows how to keep her balance as she steps through these hoary conventions of Victorian melodrama. By the time she finishes describing Ren's little collection of stolen objects and his muted despair, I wanted to sign the adoption papers myself.
But, of course, someone does come for him, just as he's always dreamed. His long-lost brother, Benjamin Nab, has been looking for Ren since their father took them West. Their family was attacked by Indians, Benjamin tells the priest, and in the heat of combat, Ren's mother accidentally chopped off his hand. Benjamin saved his baby brother, passed him along to travelers, and then went back to exact revenge on those Indians.
Naturally, nothing about Benjamin's tale is true, but let the adventure begin!
The key to Tinti's success with this novel is the constant tension between tenderness and peril, a tension that she ratchets up until the final pages. Ren suspects he's been adopted under false pretenses, and, what's worse, as they leave Saint Anthony's, he learns that Benjamin picked him because his handicap is just the right prop for his new guardian's treacly lies and con games. "That hand of yours is going to open wallets faster than any gun," Benjamin brags as they set off into the forest looking for soft hearts.
"Sometimes Benjamin repeated the story of their mother and the Indian," Tinti writes. "Other times it was a lion who'd eaten Ren's hand, or a snapping turtle as he dangled his fingers in a stream." Indeed, Benjamin's alacrity with a lie is one of the great comic wonders of The Good Thief. "I understand you've been raised with a different set of rules," Benjamin says, "but if you want to stay alive out here you're going to be forced to break them. Know what you need, and if it crosses your path, take it." Can this scoundrel care for a boy who knows nothing of the world beyond what the priests and the Bible have taught him?
Tinti never lets us relax, even as absurdities pile up delightfully. When Benjamin and Ren arrive at the grim, aptly named town of North Umbrage, the story grows both more humorous and more ominous. The town is dominated by a smoke-belching mousetrap factory, staffed by a great army of scurrying young women. Benjamin is nervous about settling here, but he can't resist the lucrative grave-robbing opportunities, which quickly give way to an even richer trade in dead bodies for the local research hospital.
Ren finds all this terrifying, and for good reason. What he wants most in the world, though, is a family, and slowly he cobbles together one that includes a friendly giant whose only talent is murdering people, a mysterious dwarf who lives on the roof, and a lonely deaf woman who yells at them constantly.
Their antics take place in a slightly surreal world where cause and effect are only tangentially related. Even the story's pacing seems dreamlike, static and panicked at the same time. We never know much more than Ren does about what's happening, but he's deeply serious about learning to do what's right even though everyone around him is engaged in criminal activity of one sort or another. "He could feel God's eye upon him," Tinti writes, "like a pointed stick at the back of his neck."
Before this is all over, you can bet there are shocking murders, close scrapes, rooftop chases and last-minute escapes. But what's most enjoyable is watching Tinti draw all these crazy elements together with Ren's destiny. The dark secret of his past could destroy his last chance for happiness, or -- just maybe -- it could lead to the family he never had.