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Thursday, April 29, 2010

BPL Book Discussion: The Good Thief

Last week, my group met to discuss Hannah Tinti's The Good Thief, and to prepare for our upcoming appearance in The Chicago Tribune.

First, to the important stuff. As I mentioned here, we were accepted to be featured as one of the Printers Row Chicagoland Bookclubs. To that end, I was asked to have the group answer some specific questions and take their picture. So thanks to Briana, here we are (minus 2 regulars).

Look for an announcement on this blog in the coming months to see when our feature is run, and, more importantly, to see what we have to say about how awesome the Berwyn Library's Monday Book Club is.

Now on to the discussion, which was a great one incidentally.  I first read The Good Thief  by Hannah Tinti back in October of 2008 and it was my favorite book I read that year also. Here is what I said about it back then:
"The Good Thief is, refreshingly, a traditional adventure story (with a historical background) in a literary landscape where adventure is being consumed by thrillers and terrorism plot lines. It is fast paced, the hero is resourceful and lucky (maybe unbelievable so, but that goes with the genre), and it has a resolved, happy ending. Tinti uses many of Dickens' own tricks and themes to propel her story along., including a wonderful cast of eccentric secondary characters such as a dwarf who lives on the roof, a murdering giant, and a hard of hearing landlady. The novel is appropriately funny, heart-warming, melodramatic, and bittersweet, with each occurring in the right place."
The novel is set in 19th Century, upper New England and follows the story of  an enchanting 12-year-old boy named Ren. Ren was left, missing his left hand, as an infant in an orphanage, he is finally adopted by a man claiming to be his brother, but who is quickly revealed as a con man. This historical adventure leads Ren on a Gothic inspired adventure in which his parentage is finally revealed and his future is secured.

I was concerned about doing one of my favorite books with the book club, but it worked out great.  I began, as usual, by going around the room and asking who liked, disliked, or felt so-so about the book. We had no "dislikes", many "loves," and only a few "so-so's." I have mention using this discussion starting trick before and highly recommend it to all book discussion leaders.  First, you get a sense of what you are up against. I always try to provide a balance of opinions in the discussion because when everyone agrees, the discussion is boring.  In this case, I knew I would need to be more critical of the novel, providing some counterpoints for their "Good Thief Love."

Second, this technique allows the discussion to begin naturally. After people pick a side, I call on someone from the majority opinion (in  this case, loved it) and ask why they felt this way. This gets the discussion going right away. You do have to make sure you get the other people (in this case, the so-so's) into the discussion too. In many cases, the reason one person loved the book is why another did not.

So, what did we discuss. The biggest thing I want to share about our discussion is how excited everyone was that we read a fun, fast-paced story. One participant said reading this novel reminded her of reading as a child: a book you couldn't put down, with characters you loved, great details of time and place, and a fun, adventurous story with a happy ending. This is important for long standing book clubs. We can get bogged down in serious books, so it is nice to have a chance to read a fun book with enough issues to discuss

Here is a list of some of the issues we discussed:
  • Ren was a wonderful protagonist. We loved his perspective, imagination, and his good heart
  • Tinti's beautiful language, engrossing descriptions, and eccentric characters were commented upon
  • One participant had us look at the intro pages for each of the novel's 3 parts.  Part One has a picture of a hand (in this part Ren is used for his lack of hand). Part Two has a picture of a skull (here Ren meets the Doctor and learns about anatomy). Part Three has a picture of a heart (here Ren finds a family)
  • We spent a lot of time talking about how similar to a Dickens novel this truly was. This otherness of time and place with a nod to great works of the past, allowed Tinti the leeway to create a story in which anything could (and does) happen.
  • The theme of redemption is big in this novel.
  • We spent time talking about all of the secondary characters. We evaluated their actions and motives. Although they are all different, all of the characters in the book are outcasts and most evolve, grow and change. This is a bunch of extreme characters too. They keep you on your toes.
  • My favorite question of the day, "Can you be a good thief?" This was a fun side discussion
  • The book was dark, but Ren was light.
  • Nature vs. Nurture
  • Ren and his religious upbringing.
  • In a book with a bunch of positive female characters, not one is a wife or mother. Hmmmmm.
Readalikes: Specific readalike titles would of course include anything by Dickens. But for more modern authors and titles, those interested could try The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski which also has a disabled but plucky, young male protagonist (here he is mute), and a coming-of-age theme; it also loosely follows the plot of Hamlet. A less mainstream suggestion would be another well received first novel, When the Finch Rises by Jack Riggs. Here the reader follows two young boys in the 1960s South, their tough lives, their coming-of-age, and the strength of their friendship that pulls them through. It is important to note that this novel does have touches of magical realism. Finally one of my back list favorites that I would be a perfect match for readers who liked Ren is The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint by Brady Udall. I would also suggest The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, and City of Thieves by David Bennioff.


Annette Laing said...

As an historian (and a children's author), I'm keenly aware that many historical fiction writers feel straitjacketed by the past. The Good Thief was different: The author was focused primarily on the story, and the historical setting was almost incidental. It took me a long time, in fact, to decide that this was a work of historical fiction at all, because it created such an enchanting atmosphere of pure fantasy.

Becky said...

I totally agree with you about the fantasy vs historical fiction angle. That is why I compare it to Dickens so much. It uses the Dickens model and adds some fantasy.

Whatever genre we want to place it in though, The Good Thief is an absorbing read.

Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

Anonymous said...

Dickens is a great comparison for this book. I have only ever read one book by Dickens, but the story goes right along with this one. Great Expectations is a book that is broken up into three parts with a theme for each. Redemption is an important role in the book and when it was mentioned on here, I realized just how similar they were.