Hannah Tinti’s The Good Thief tells the story of Ren, an orphan missing his left hand who is adopted by a confidence man named Benjamin Nab. Set in nineteenth century New England, Ren has every reason to become a thief and a scoundrel, but instead he manages to maintain his goodness while forming a surrogate family of outlaws and outcasts.
Ren is a twelve-year-old orphan living in St. Anthony’s orphanage. St. Anthony’s was originally a vineyard before it became a Catholic monastery within a suspicious protestant community. The monks earned the acceptance of their neighbors by producing wine. Before long they found orphans deposited within their gates, which is how the monastery became an orphanage. Ren only knows his name because the letters R, E, and N were sewn into the collar of the clothing he was wearing when he was abandoned as a baby.
The boys of St. Anthony’s are raised in strict adherence to the Bible’s teachings, and misbehavior—including Ren’s many thefts—is often punished with Father John’s switch. The boys are an unfortunate lot. Brom and Ichy, Ren’s best friends, are twins who are considered bad luck because their mother died in childbirth. Ren has the worst luck of all because he has lost his left hand, though he has no idea how it happened. Life at St. Anthony’s is harsh and often unhappy. The boys dream of adoption particularly because those who are not adopted are sold into the army.
Given his missing hand, it seems unlikely that Ren will ever be adopted. However, when Benjamin Nab arrives at St. Anthony’s, he is overjoyed to discover Ren and claims him as his lost brother. In private, Benjamin explains to Father John that Native Americans killed his and Ren’s parents. He even produces their scalps. Father John agrees to release Ren, and the two brothers depart from St. Anthony’s.
They arrive at a nearby farm where Benjamin asks for shelter in the barn. The farm mother sees Ren’s missing hand and insists that Benjamin and Ren stay inside. The next morning, Benjamin and Ren steal two horses and a carriage from the farm. Benjamin reveals that he is not Ren’s brother and that his father was not killed by Native Americans.
Benjamin and Ren eventually join Tom. Tom is an alcoholic, and he is surprised that Benjamin has returned with a child. However, Benjamin explains that Ren’s lost hand will earn them people’s sympathy, which will make it easier to rob them. Tom and Benjamin are not only thieves but also confidence men who sell opium tonics to relieve pain or—if they replace the labels—cure children of unruly behavior.
They try to dig up bodies to find gold teeth only to discover that the teeth are rotten. However, this adventure leads them to North Umbrage, where they have discovered that a doctor is willing to pay men to dig up recently deceased bodies. With some reluctance, Benjamin, Tom, and Ren make their way to...
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