Growing up with lousy parents is fine literary material, but growing up with no parents at all is even better, as authors ranging from Charles Dickens to J.K. Rowling have demonstrated. Orphans have dramatic ancestral mysteries to solve, urgent emotional needs to fill, and no one looking out for their well-being. Best of all, orphans can get into serious trouble. Hard on the poor kids; potentially fascinating for the reader.
Ren, the 12-year-old hero of The Good Thief, Hannah Tinti's moody, twisty, and assured first novel, was left on the doorstep of a grim 19th-century New England orphanage as an infant. He arrived with two skimpy clues about his origins: He was wearing a nightshirt with his initials embroidered on the collar. And he was missing his left hand.
One day a silver-tongued stranger, who goes by the appropriately Dickensian name of Benjamin Nab, turns up to claim Ren as his long-lost brother. He tells a wild story about their shared family tragedy (a homestead in the West, an evil Indian, Ren's hand chopped off by an ax) that may or may not be a load of malarkey.
But it's enough to win him custody of the lonely and unwanted child. Nab quickly draws Ren into a peripatetic life of crime, stealing horses, peddling bogus patent medicines, and digging cadavers out of country cemeteries to sell for medical research. Along the road, Ren meets and befriends a loopy doctor, a motherly landlady, a doltish murderer, and a toy-carving, roof-dwelling dwarf, oddballs who become a kind of surrogate family to the boy. The first two-thirds of the novel read like a loose-jointed picaresque adventure, each episode vivid and surreal, if not appearing to lead anywhere important.
But Tinti does have a final destination, however circuitously she might lead us there. In the sinister town of North Umbrage dominated by a prison-like mousetrap factory run by phalanxes of homely, unmarried girls Ren's scattered friends prove their devotion. He finally gets answers about his past, and Tinti secures her place as one of the sharpest, slyest young American novelists. A-