In the city of Jewel, people are so worried about the safety of their children that kids are basically leashed, hooked to the Blessed Guardians by day and their parents by night with fine silver chains. (The harassed children have invented what they call fingertalk for communicating with each other). If children misbehave, they are chained more severely, in heavy Punishment Chains. When children reach the age of twelve, their chains are unfastened. Think of the chains as training wheels, preparing kids for sensible behavior. Only—how awful!
But just as Goldie Roth is on the brink of freedom in the public ceremony known as Separation, conducted by the city's kindly Protector, another official called the Fugleman bursts in with news that his office has been bombed and a child hurt. It is decided that Jewel is unsafe, and the Separation is canceled. Goldie, whose silver chain has been replaced by a white ribbon for the ceremony, can't bear the thought. She impulsively cuts the ribbon and runs away.
Her parents are jailed in the House of Repentance for what she has done, and if Goldie is caught, she will be placed in a reform school called Care. Before that can happen, though, she is taken in by the odd crew of the seemingly decrepit Museum of Dunt—admitted only after they have happily concluded that she is a thief!
Author Tanner plays with the idea, never mentioned, that museums are filled with artifacts stolen from their former resting places. She does introduce alternate ways of looking at the idea of a thief. As an older museum keeper named Olga Ciavolga explains:
"I do not wish to glorify theft....But there are some things, child, that you should steal. That you must steal, if you have enough love and courage in your heart. You must snatch freedom from the hands of the tyrant. You must spirit away innocent lives before they are destroyed. You must hide secret and sacred places."
And so Goldie starts learning the mysteries of the museum, assisted by a begrudging boy named Toadspit, the other three keepers, and a terrifying yet loyal dog called a brizzlehound. She discovers that the museum contains more than it seems, including swamps and lands and hidden places, and that even its exhibits are in disguise. The museum not only shifts its rooms around, but must be kept quiet and happy, or else it will let its darker contents out into the city. (The place is partly a Pandora's box!) Goldie begins her training to be a museum keeper, which means learning to be a special kind of thief. In one of Tanner's best passages, the girl studies the three kinds of concealment: Concealment by Sham, Concealment by Camouflage, and Concealment by Imitation of Nothingness.
Meanwhile, the Blessed Guardians are hunting for Goldie, helped and directed by the Fugleman, who is one of those handsome smiling villains. The Fugleman wants to take over the city, and he sees the mysterious museum as a means to that end.
I was left with a few minor plot questions unanswered, but the story flows nicely and comes to a full stop (which I appreciate), while still leaving room for Book Two in the Keepers Trilogy, City of Lies. Goldie is a determined, courageous main character, and you'll no doubt enjoy watching her make her escape and defeat the bad guys in Museum of Thieves.
This book reminded me of Roderick Townley's The Blue Shoe, another clever fantasy with the feel of a parable (here's my review). I'm probably being unfair to let the messagey aspect of these books bother me even a little... The truth is, like The Blue Shoe, Museum of Thieves is a lively adventure, a nice start to a new fantasy trilogy for middle grades.
Note: Your kids might want to try the online Museum of Thieves game, linked here.