The Good Thief: A Novel

by Hannah Tinti

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The Good Thief: A Novel Summary

The Good Thief is a novel by Hannah Tinti in which Ren, an orphan, gets adopted by a crook named Benjamin Nab.

  • Ren and his friends Brom and Ichy are orphans. Ren only has one hand, and Brom and Ichy are twins. They have little hope of being adopted.

  • Benjamin Nab adopts Ren and involves him in his scheme to sell corpses. Later, Benjamin's partner adopts Brom and Ichy.

  • Ren and the group are captured by a man named McGinty. Benjamin, who is revealed to be Ren's real father, tricks McGinty into signing a document that leaves his entire estate to Ren.

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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 North Umbrage where they will begin selling bodies to Doctor Milton. While in North Umbrage, Benjamin, Tom, and Ren stay in a boarding house owned by Mrs. Sands. Mrs. Sands always shouts; Tinti represents this by using only capital letters to represent Mrs. Sands’s speech. Although she is at first suspicious of Tom and Benjamin, she begins to take care of Ren, bathing him and giving him new clothes that fit him well. After his first night with Mrs. Sands, Ren sees some of the girls who work at the mousetrap factory, including a young woman with a harelip. While digging bodies...

(This entire section contains 1203 words.)

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for Doctor Milton, Tom and Benjamin unearth Dolly, a giant who is not dead. Ren is put in charge of Dolly, who reveals that he is a murderer for hire. Although Dolly is extremely dangerous, he and Ren form a bond.

With the money they make from grave robbing, life should be going well for Benjamin, Tom, and Ren. Sadly, Mrs. Sands falls ill and Ren takes her to Doctor Milton’s hospital, using the remainder of Benjamin’s money to pay for her care. Meanwhile, Tom descends into alcoholism and confesses to Ren that he slept with his best friend’s wife, which led the man to commit suicide. He asks Ren whether he has any “fellows,” and when Ren admits that he left his friends Brom and Inchy behind, Tom laments that it is unfortunate to live without one’s fellows. The next day, Tom disappears and returns with Brom and Ichy. Tom has instructed the twins to call him their father. Although Benjamin disapproves, he relents and takes a hung-over Tom, a recovered Dolly, and the three children out to dig up bodies.

When Dolly discovers that he is supposed to unearth bodies, he begins choking Benjamin and is only stopped when Tom swings a shovel into the back of his head. The remainder of the group begins moving the bodies, only to be stopped by two men in hats, referred to as the “hatmen.” Although Benjamin tries to escape them, the hatmen shoot their horse and Tom’s leg. The gang is taken to the mousetrap factory where they meet Silas McGinty; he designs mousetraps and is also a strongman.

It is revealed that McGinty is Ren’s uncle; Ren’s mother was his sister. She died shortly after childbirth, and McGinty is desperate for revenge. If Ren will not reveal the name of his father, McGinty will exact revenge on Ren, although he sets the rest of the gang free. However, the girl with a harelip rescues Ren by dressing him in a factory girl dress. The plan is successful and Ren returns to Mrs. Sands’s house, where he discovers Tom and the twins and later Dolly.

Ren and Dolly decide to head out on their own, only to be captured by the hatmen. They are brought back to the mousetrap factory and Ren is forced to confess the name of his father. Not knowing what else to do, Ren makes up a story about his parents and declares that Benjamin Nab is his father. Benjamin is brought out—he was not set free after all—and Silas prepares to avenge his sister’s death. Knowing he is about to die, Benjamin asks whether he can write a will leaving his body to Ren to sell to Doctor Milton, and he asks Silas to witness the document. McGinty quickly signs his name as witness to Benjamin’s will.

At this point, several explosions rock the factory (it is suggested that the girl with a harelip is responsible). Silas dies but Benjamin and Ren escape the factory. Benjamin admits that he is Ren’s father but says he must go into hiding. Ren returns to Mrs. Sands’s house, where Tom and the twins are still staying. The boys seem to have few options, but when Tom reads Benjamin’s will, he discovers that Benjamin conned McGinty into signing a document that leaves McGinty’s entire fortune to Ren. Mrs. Sands returns home and they form a surrogate family.

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