The Good Thief: A Novel

by Hannah Tinti

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Chapter 29 Summary and Analysis

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Summary

Ren stops by Mrs. Sands’s private ward to say goodbye. The window is open and he can see the morning sky painted pink and gray. Mrs. Sands lies in bed, her head covered by a tent made of gauze. Sister Agnes sits beside her, knitting in a rocking chair. Ren asks how Mrs. Sands is recovering, and Sister Agnes responds that her condition is improving. Ren opens the flaps of the tent around Mrs. Sands, letting out steam. Her face is peaceful, and her hair has been braided. A kettle is boiling on a table beside her, letting out puffs of steam that fill the tent. Sister Agnes knows that Ren has come to say goodbye and asks if he plans to return. Ren thinks about the agreement he made with Doctor Milton and only says, “Someday.” He asks if she thinks Mrs. Sands will forgive him for leaving, but Sister Agnes does not know.

Sister Agnes tells Ren that she knows that Dolly is not a monk from Saint Anthony’s but that she knows that Ren lived there. Ren is unsure about how she discovered this, but he figures that “nuns and priests and brothers always seemed to know more than most.” She pulls out a letter from Brother Joseph, which was written in response to one she sent inquiring about Ren’s identity. Brother Joseph confirms that Ren was an orphan raised at Saint Anthony’s and that he was claimed by a man claiming to be his relative. He admits that he doubted the alleged relative’s story, but space at Saint Anthony’s is limited so he did not object. He asks Sister Agnes to send Ren their blessings and to tell him that Brother Joseph hopes that he “put his Lives of the Saints to good use.”

Ren asks Sister Agnes why she wrote to Brother Joseph, and she tells Ren that she brought him to Saint Anthony’s as a baby. She describes a woman who came to the hospital with blood on her dress, claiming that she had killed her baby. The baby had been left under a bush alongside the road, but he was not dead—though his left hand had been cut off. Sister Agnes brought the baby back to his mother, but the woman would not accept that he was alive. Instead, she removed his clothes and nightshirt and packed them with rocks from outside the hospital. She left the baby with Sister Agnes, asking her to watch over him until she returned. However, she never did, and Sister Agnes decided to take the baby to Saint Anthony’s. She deposited him through the little door in the gate outside the orphanage, but immediately regretted it. She did not want to keep the baby any longer, fearing someone would suspect he was the child of one of the sister's, and that would bring disgrace upon the convent. Nevertheless, she reached through the small door, trying to pull the baby back to her. He had already slipped beyond her reach, however, and she had to return to the hospital. She tells Ren that she was wrong to abandon him, and that it was “wrong to leave you out in the rain.” Ren assures her that he is just fine, and that “they” found him.

Ren knows he must leave the hospital as soon as possible. He tells Sister Agnes that he made an arrangement with Doctor Milton, but does not elaborate further. Sister Agnes seems troubled, but only encourages him to take Brother Joseph’s letter because he sent Ren a blessing. Ren takes it and...

(This entire section contains 1431 words.)

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turns to Mrs. Sands. The steam that billows from the kettle is thick, covering Ren “like a fog, settling deep inside his lungs.” He pushes a curl of hair behind her ear and hugs her around the shoulders. She begins to cough and grabs his ear, pinching it hard. She orders him to “TAKE ME HOME,” accusing him of leaving her. He apologizes, saying that he must go, but she says his need to leave is “NONSENSE” and tries to climb out of bed. Sister Agnes restrains her, but Mrs. Sands insists that she has had “ENOUGH LOOKING AFTER.” She must return home to feed her brother, the dwarf, or he will die of starvation. Ren tells her that he cannot take her home, and she lies back down, saying that she made a promise to care for him. Mrs. Sands says that Ren is a good boy and, though she has “NO RIGHT TO ASK,” begs him to go back to the boarding house and dig up some money that she buried next to the chicken coop in the yard. She instructs him to go to the market and buy food for the dwarf and to take the rest for himself. Ren thinks of the hat boys that are undoubtedly looking for him and says that he cannot help her, but she asks again, saying that she “LEFT HIM ALL ALONE” and that she “TOLD HIM THAT I NEVER WOULD.” She begins to cry, which causes her to cough again. Ren thinks about how, unlike Benjamin, Mrs. Sands never left anyone behind: “she ran the house that belonged to her mother,” “knit her brothers socks,” and “still dropped to her knees every day and pressed her ear to the ground, trying to hear her husband in the earth.” Ren finally agrees, promising to take care of him. Finally, Mrs. Sands falls quiet.

Analysis

When Sister Agnes reveals how Ren ended up at Saint Anthony’s, she further complicates the novel’s theme of mothers and mothering—specifically, the theme of maternal abandonment. Ren is highly preoccupied with abandonment, whether it involves someone's abandoning him or his abandoning the people he cares about. The more he learns about his origins, the more he learns about the truth behind some of his early childhood fantasies. When he imagines Brom and Ichy’s mother standing before him in the little boys’ room, drenched in river water, he seems to unknowingly echo his own mother’s attempt to drown herself in the river in North Umbrage. Every time he examined the little infant depository in Saint Anthony’s gate, he imagined “a mother reaching back through, changing her mind, a thin white arm.” In reality, Sister Agnes was the maternal figure who had changed her mind, but she could not reach him. For whatever reason, it seems that she could not have entered the monastery—perhaps, as she says, because the monks may have assumed that the baby was hers, or one of the other nun's.

Despite the grim consequences Ren continues to experience because of mothers, the novel does not present maternal abandonment as an easily condemned offense. None of the women who abandoned Ren seemed to intend any harm. His mother was clearly disturbed and was likely to have suffered considerably because he was born out of wedlock. She also, by Sister Agnes’s account, seemed horrified by what she claimed she did to her baby. However, the act of filling his nightclothes with rocks suggests that she wanted to save Ren by leaving him with Sister Agnes. She certainly intended to fool someone—likely her brother—into believing that Ren was dead. Furthermore, Sister Agnes did not abandon Ren because she did not care about him. Her position was complicated, given that his presence in the convent would bring disgrace on the nuns. However, she immediately regretted leaving him in the rain at Saint Anthony’s and says that she thought about him a lot over the years that followed. Hers was the arm that reached back through the little door, for she had changed her mind.

Sister Agnes’s description of “depositing children through the wooden door” of the orphanage eerily mirrors the act of depositing bodies through the door leading to Doctor Milton’s basement. The body, whether of an orphan or of a corpse, becomes the property of the institution that receives it. The man who presides over that institution therefore has the prerogative to capitalize on the body because it has no rights of its own. Father John does this to the orphans by extracting free labor from them during winemaking and by selling boys into the army if they are not claimed and put to use by another man. Doctor Milton does this to his living patients and to the corpses stolen for him by “resurrection men,” stripping them for parts and using them to advance his agenda.

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