Amputation 2


I’m going, as always, to assume you’ve either read the books here or don’t mind a little bit of a spoiler. The books are good reading, particularly The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti but Moonstone by Marilee Brothers is fun, too.

The climaxes of both books have amputation threats. In Moonstone Allie’s mother is threatened if Allie doesn’t surrender a source of power and in The Good Thief, Ren is threatened with a repetition of the mutilation that occurred when he was an infant. When Ren was an infant, his hand was cut off in an attempt to force his mother to tell her brother who Ren’s father was, and at the climax of the book, Ren is threatened directly–reveal your father’s identity or lose your remaining hand.

For Allie, the real power turns out to be her connection with a secret society of powerful people with stars on their palms, who use their powers to fight for good; her connection to her missing father (c.f. Father Hunger below).

To understand what’s happening in The Good Thief, I want to look at McGinty, Ren’s evil antagonist, his mother’s brother. The history is chilling: Ren’s grandfather repeatedly raped Ren’s mother, until her brother intervened–he killed their father. He was at that point her protector, but became her jailer. She wandered off, spent the night in the collapsed mine where so many miners died, met Ren’s father and became pregnant. After the delivery McGinty tortured the baby, but Ren’s mother wouldn’t reveal the identity of his father because she knew her brother would kill him. He tells her the baby is dead, she goes mad and drowns herself. A nun saves Ren and brings him to the orphanage.

Years later, a con man comes to the orphanage and claims Ren as his son, teaches him to steal and brings him to the town where they meet McGinty.

McGinty is a torturer and a murderer. He’s killed his own father and cut the hand from his infant nephew and driven his sister to suicide. He owns a mousetrap factory and delights in designing new ways to kill mice. He exploits his workers and employs the dreaded Hat Men to keep order. A corpse is carried out of a bar. The stiff arm of the corpse knocks the hat from a Hat Man. He stops the men carrying the corpse and cuts off the dead man’s hand, uses it to hold the handle of his beer mug. McGinty blames Ren and Ren’s unknown father for the suicide.

The reader knows McGinty was responsible for the death of his own despicable father, for his sister’s suicide and for the torture. Why? Why do we hold McGinty accountable though he views himself as a protector and avenger?

My guess: we understand better than he that the impulses that drove him to these actions are not pure. He killed his own father for raping his sister (in part) not to protect her, but because he, too,  wanted to have sex with her. His need to keep her “safe” and his rage at her pregnancy both reveal his incestuous desire.

What drove him to choose the form of torture that he chose for Ren? Why cut off his hand? And why torture the infant at all as opposed to torturing the mother directly to get the information?

That last question has answers on several levels.

First, he did love his sister and could not bring himself to physically mutilate her, though emotionally he was willing to do so. Second, harming the child could be viewed as mutilating (castrating) the father–their own father and the baby’s father.

The meaning of the hand? That must be important because it was so reinforced throughout the book, from Ren’s missing hand to the hand of the corpse to the band saw injury in the factory to the amputated hand kept in glass, this keeps coming back and accruing meaning.

What about hands? Hands are what we hold with. They are all we have to do things with. Without hands, we cannot feed ourselves, cannot even masturbate (yes, the connection to sexuality again). Cutting off the hand, mutilating, castrating . . . the torture is one rich in associations.

Jan points out that McGinty chose this method of torture because he must have felt that it would evoke horror in Ren and in Ren’s mother, which means it must have evoked horror in him. That begs the question, what happened to him to make him so fear that kind of mutilation? Was it the trauma to his sister, or did it happen to him, too? And mousetraps? Had he, too, felt trapped and helpless?

I’ll leave this here, for now, but The Good Thief is rich and there is a lot in it to think about.


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