Excerpted from The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti. Copyright © 2008 by Hannah Tinti. Excerpted by permission of Dial Press Trade Paperback, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Q&A with Hannah Tinti about her new novel, The Good Thief
Why did you decide to set your novel in New England?
I wanted The Good Thief to take place in America in the 1800s, and New England felt like the perfect place. I grew up in Salem, Massachusetts–famous for the witch trials and as the birthplace of Nathaniel Hawthorne–so stepping into the time period was actually quite natural for me. Most of the houses in the neighborhood where I grew up were built in the 1700s and 1800s, and it was not unusual to have a back staircase, or fireplaces in nearly every room, low ceilings or small latched pantry doors. Whenever my family worked outside in our small garden, we were constantly digging up things from the past–fragments of blue and white china plates, broken clay pipes, or crushed shells that used to line the path to a neighboring carriage house. Once, my grandmother found a Spanish Reale from the 1700s. This unearthing of tangible history, and being conscious every day of the people who have lived in places before you is something common in Europe and other parts of the world, but in America it is more unusual. In any event, it made a lasting impression on me, and has certainly wound its way throughout The Good Thief.
How did you come up with the title The Good Thief?
Originally I had planned to call the book Resurrection Men. Then, for a number of reasons, I had to change it. I was at a loss for a long time, and nothing seemed appropriate. Finally, I gave an early draft of the novel to my mother, who worked for many years as a librarian and has read more books than anyone else I know. She came up with The Good Thief, and as soon as she said it I knew it was the right title. There is a lot of stealing going on throughout the book, with mixed intentions and results. I also liked the biblical reference of the Good Thief (also known as Saint Dismas), who was one of the men crucified with Jesus Christ on Golgotha. His story is one of redemption, at the very last minute, and that suits this novel perfectly.
What are ‘Resurrection Men’?
A number of years ago I was given a copy of Jeffrey Kacirk’s Forgotten English, a collection of words that have fallen out of use in the English language. One of the words was “Resurrection Men," and it included a brief description of what the word meant:
“Body-snatchers, those who broke open the coffins of the newly buried to supply the demands of the surgical and medical schools. The first recorded instance of the practice was in 1742, and it flourished particularly until the passing of the Anatomy Act in 1832. The resurrectionist took the corpse naked, this being in law a misdemeanor, as opposed to a felony if garments were taken as well…First applied to Burke and Hare in 1829, who rifled graves to sell the bodies for dissection, and sometimes even murdered people for the same purpose.”–Ebenezer Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, excerpted by Jeffrey Kacirk in Forgotten English.
I was drawn to the moral murkiness of these resurrection men. They were doing something terrible–desecrating graves–but with the knowledge of the medical schools and partial acceptance from the law. These thieves did it for the money, but they also inadvertently saved others from dying by providing the test subjects doctors needed to further their science. I tore out the definition of "Resurrection Men," and pasted it into my journal with a note–possible novel? That was six years ago.
How did you come up with the character of Ren, and why does he have only one hand?
After learning the definition of Resurrection Men, a scene began to form in my head. It was a moonlit night, and a small boy was holding the reins of a horse and wagon outside a graveyard. I didn’t know anything about the boy, only that he was waiting for the resurrection men to bring the bodies, and that he was terrified. This was the first chapter I wrote of The Good Thief, and it became the center of the book.
Writing for me has always been an intuitive and mysterious process. As I expanded the scene, I began to describe the boy, and wrote that he was holding the reins of the horse with his right hand. But when I tried to say what he was doing with his left I faltered. Then I realized–he didn’t have a left hand. And suddenly the boy was alive. This is how I discovered Ren’s secret, and I used it to unlock his character. It answered so many questions about him–why he was alone, and how he might have fallen in with these dangerous men.
The Good Thief has been compared to the work of Robert Louis Stevenson and Charles Dickens. Did you set out to write an adventure tale?
It’s humbling to be compared with these master storytellers. Stevenson and Dickens were my heroes growing up, along with James Fenimore Cooper. I’m not sure if I set out purposely to write an adventure story, but I was certainly influenced by these great writers. Who could forget the scene in Kidnapped where David Balfour climbs the empty staircase and nearly falls? Or when Magwitch appears on the moor in Great Expectations? Whenever I felt daunted by the task before me (The Good Thief is my first novel), I went back to this important lesson–write something that you would like to read yourself–and tried to put it in motion on the page. Once I started it was hard to stop. I like to fall into books; to read about strange places and about characters who make me care deeply. I also like to be surprised at what’s going to happen next.
What is a wishing stone?
A wishing stone is a rock, usually found near water, with an unbroken white line circling it completely. It is good for one wish to come true. When I was a child I would collect them. Later, I was reintroduced to them at an important time in my life. At the beginning of The Good Thief, Ren comes into possession of one. It is his golden ticket, and this wish reverberates throughout the rest of the book, as do the stones themselves.
From the Hardcover edition.
1. How do the time period and the locale shape the novel? How did the needy and the sly fare in rural America before the twentieth century? What historical aspects of The Good Thief surprised you the most?
2. What were your impressions of Saint Anthony's? What were the motivations of Father John and the brothers who cared for Ren there? Were they cruel or simply realistic?
3. Did you believe the story Benjamin told when he took Ren from Saint Anthony's? Would you have fallen for the scams they ran? What vulnerabilities did they prey on? What is the key to being a successful scoundrel?
4. What did The Lives of the Saints mean to Ren before and after he left Saint Anthony's? How did his feelings about religion change throughout the novel? How did his early lessons in sin, penance, and ritual serve him in the real world?
5. What enabled Benjamin and Tom to engage in grave robbing without feeling repulsed? Can their practical logic be justified? What is the emotional value of the possessions of the dead?
6. In chapter fourteen, Doctor Milton lets Ren see his scarred skin under a microscope. What changes for Ren in that en- counter? How did his injury affect his life in different ways throughout the novel? How did you react when you discovered how his hand had been severed?
7. The Harelip, Mrs. Sands, and Sister Agnes all seem powerful and skilled in different ways but don't fit traditional female archetypes of wives or mothers. How are women represented in The Good Thief ? How do these women affect Ren's story?
8. In what ways is Ren wiser than Brom or Ichy? What makes him better prepared for life on the lam?
9. What does Dolly teach Ren about himself and about the nature of death and darkness in the world? What effect does Ren have on Dolly?
10. Discuss the images Ren had created of an ideal mother as someone beautiful who could provide comfort, a warm bed, and good cooking. How does Sister Agnes help him cope with the reality of his mother? Should he have been sheltered from knowing the truth? How does Mrs. Sands fulfill or not fulfill the role of mother for Ren?
11. What is the source of McGinty's sadism and bitterness? What did it take to defeat him?
12. Early in the novel, Benjamin and Tom discover Ren's ease with trickery and declare that he is already one of them. Did he possess these skills innately or were they the result of having to survive at Saint Anthony's? How much control over his destiny did Ren have? Did nature or nurture have the greater role in his approach to the world?
13. Discuss the title. What makes a good thief—either in terms of being a noble thief or a skillful one? Can this be applied to the epigraph from Emerson, describing the rewards available to a good "trapper"? And how does this relate to the biblical story of the Good Thief, who was crucified with Jesus Christ on Golgotha?
14. What innovative approaches to storytelling appear in The Good Thief ?