, Salem, MA

March 28, 2014

Column: Salem reads together

Elizabeth Myers
The Salem News

---- — This summer, from Aug. 21 to 24, the city of Salem is hosting a Community Read. Salem’s book of choice is Hannah Tinti’s “The Good Thief.” Copies of the book will be distributed free of charge at the Salem Partnership table at the Education Day festivities on May 10, and all interested parties can receive one copy per household. According to the author, “‘The Good Thief’ is a coming-of-age story, but it is also about redemption and second chances. Throughout the novel, different characters try to right past wrongs. ‘The Good Thief’ was written for adults, but the book has also crossed over and become a favorite for high school and junior high students.”

The story opens in the 1800s, in a New England orphanage operated by a monastery that also dabbles in winemaking. Our hero, a 12-year-old boy named Ren, lives in fear of being enlisted in military service when he comes of age, as his mysterious lack of a left hand has prevented him from being adopted. According to author Hannah Tinti, “How he lost his hand is a mystery that Ren spends the book trying to unravel — crossing paths with scam artists, petty thieves and grave robbers as he seeks his place in the world.” Ren’s life is turned upside down when a man appears claiming to be his brother and promises to give Ren the home he has been longing for his whole life. However, this man is not who he claims to be. This story takes the best elements of “Oliver Twist” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and presents them with an accessible voice that appeals to people of all ages.

Hannah Tinti grew up in Salem, and “The Good Thief” was partly inspired by her roots.

“Because I grew up in Salem, stepping into the time period of ‘The Good Thief was easy,” Tinti said. “Many of the houses in Salem were built in the 1700s and 1800s, and whenever my family planted our backyard garden, we would dig up things from the past — fragments of blue and white china plates or broken clay pipes. Once, my grandmother found a Spanish Reale from the 1700s.”

Tinti was also inspired by classic texts such as “Great Expectations,” “Treasure Island” and “Jane Eyre,” and the whimsical spookiness shows in her work.

What really started the process for “The Good Thief,” however, was Jeffrey Kacirk’s “Forgotten English.”

“One of the entries was ‘Resurrection Men,’” Tinti said. “I thought it was a beautiful phrase, and then I read the definition and was horrified! Resurrection men were thieves who would dig up bodies and sell them to medical schools for dissection. It was a terrible thing to do — but at the same time, medical students needed bodies to practice on so that they could learn to save lives. I was intrigued by this idea (something bad leading to something good), and decided I wanted to write about these ‘resurrection men.’ I sketched out a scene in a graveyard, and Ren’s story grew from there.”

Tinti has previously published a collection of short stories, titled “Animal Crackers,” and is currently working on a modern re-telling of “The Twelve Labors of Hercules,” featuring a gangster and his daughter. With a new project in the works, Tinti is constantly investigating ways of combating writer’s block. Lately, she has taken to writing with a quill pen to help get the words flowing.

“Getting off the computer and away from the internet helps,” she said. “The tactile feel of dipping the pen in ink makes the process feel more like drawing and less like work.”

The benefits of a Community Read program are numerous. This program promotes family togetherness, literacy beyond school requirements and community bonding. Students are encouraged to read and discuss the book with their parents, and parents are encouraged to read aloud to younger children. Perhaps the opportunity to read and discuss the story with their families in a constructive environment will even encourage a healthy appreciation for literature in otherwise reluctant students. Student literacy is vital for developing vocabulary and analytical skills that can be applied to any school career path.

The Community Read events are open to everyone who has read the book. Events include author readings, a special after-hours trip to Harmony Grove Cemetery and a writing workshop at the public library. More detailed information about the events is forthcoming. We hope to see you at the events, and in the meantime, we hope you enjoy the book!

Elizabeth Myers is an English major at Salem State University and an intern with the Salem Partnership. This column is one in a monthly series from the Community Advisory Board for the Salem schools.