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Thieves, Ella West

May 18, 2011

Thieves Book blurb

Nicky has a secret. Now you see her: now you don’t. 

She has the ability to disappear and reappear in another place – her gift controlled through the powers of thought alone.

Someone else has discovered Nicky’s extrasensory talent: a group called the Project. Anonymous, benign in manner, yet also sinister in its secrecy, the Project spirits Nicky and four others away to a desert hideaway. Constantly monitored by security, taken from their families and even their own countries, Nicky and her fellow travellers are gradually pushed into a world of espionage and intrigue.

But who are they working for? Is the Project inherently good, or is it inherently evil?

A powerful and chilling thriller from an exceptional new talent.

[Back cover, Ella West (2006) Thieves.  Longacre Press: Dunedin.]

Thieves First Page


You can tell a lot about a person from their closet.  Whether their shoes are matched in pairs neatly or just thrown in on top of each other.  How their clothes are hung.  What else is in there.  My closet is very, very tidy but that is more to do with where I live than the type of person I am.  If it were up to me, my shoes would be a mess, just chucked in, not paired up or anything.  The clothes I like best would be hung in the middles so I could grab them when I had to.  Nothing would be ordered except to my needs.  And my needs of course would be speed.  My life would be too busy and too exciting to take time to keep a tidy closet.

I spend a lot of time in my closet, which I suppose is why I think about these things a lot.  I feel kind of safe here.  I sit, like now, with my back against the side, facing the length of it.  The door, closed of course, is on my left.  I hug my legs to my chest, my head on my knees.

This time, I think, it is going to get me in trouble.

It happened again. I didn’t mean to.  I couldn’t stop it.”

[p7, Ella West (2006) Thieves.  Longacre Press: Dunedin.]  NOTE: there is a synopsis, or plot summary, of Thieves at the beginning of the next book in the trilogy, Anywhere But Here. This synopsis is presented as a prologue of sorts, titled ‘Starting Blocks’.

Themes in the novel


Possible directions for study/questions to apply to Thieves:


Characterisation and relationships in the novel:

  • Within the first paragraph, we know the narrator is not living how or where she wishes and that she is not able to ‘be herself’ as a result.  She does not appear to be in control of her life – indeed, it quickly turns out, she is not even in control of her own body.  This is not a surprising depiction of adolescence, but what does this first impression do to our image of the protagonist and narrator?  How does it set things in motion for the story to play out? How does it help our imaginations enter into the story?
  • How does the novel end in this regard? The trilogy?
  • What effect does this prologue section have on our approach to the story?  What does it set up that couldn’t happen by simply starting at chapter one?
  • Who is the narrator? Why have Nicky tell this story? What does the ‘first person’ narrative add to the story being told (I am thinking in particular of the experience of power and the play on our big brother fears)?
  • How does Nicky (as the narrator) portray the travellers’ relationships?
  • How do the travellers see themselves? How do we know (if Nicky is the narrator)? Does their self-image influence the flow of events?
  • Does the travellers’ knowledge of themselves change over the course of the novel? What effect does this have on the story; on the reader’s view of these adolescents; on adolescence in general?
  • How do the travellers’ actions define them? In the novel, how do one’s actions lead to consequences, that in turn, determine a character’s (or his community’s) fate?
  • Indeed, do actions have consequences in this novel? What about innate characteristics?  What of the travellers’ inherent abilities; their ‘nature’? How do the their ‘natures’ determine their fate?
  • Are these characters strong/weak?… (how do you know this?) How does this shape the story being told? If strong – where do they get their strength from; if weak – where does this come from?
  • Where do the main characters’ strengths/weaknesses come from/lie? Are they social, physical, internal, familial, communal, economic, spiritual, etc.? Do the characters have imagination, ‘inherent’ abilities, ‘taught’/’learned’ skills, ‘personalities’ to draw on…?
  • Nicky and her fellow travellers have this ability to ‘travel’ (to ‘find’ or to ‘seek’).  Where does it come from? How do they know how to use it? It seems as if the ability to travel is an inherent one – ‘part of who they are’ – BUT they can be taught to use it better; they can hone their skills with instruction, assistance and practice.  It feels culturally significant to me that the ability that makes them unique is conceived in this way… I just have to think it through a bit more!
  • How do the travellers’ relationships impact on the course of events; on the possibilities open to the protagonists and other characters?   What is the message the reader takes from the relationships and their development in this novel?  My inclination is that there a ‘strength in numbers,’ ‘together we can do anything‘ premise to how things pan out; to how the story flows.
  • What community does Nicky have around her? Who can she rely on?
  • The reader is asked to consider the importance of friendship and compare/contrast Nicky’s situation with that of Harry Potter (p25). What is the result?
  • Who are the villains? Do we know for sure?  Why surround the concept of villainy with uncertainty?
  • What is threatened in this story? What is the problem? How is it resolved (is it?)?
  • What significance does Nicky give Christmas?  How does the absence of this family ritual shape the reader’s understanding of ‘the Project’?
  • What line does ‘the Project’ cross when it refuses Jake and Tina condoms and indicates that Tina getting pregnant by a fellow traveller would be desirable? How does this shape the reader’s understanding of the Project? And her relationship with Nicky?
  • Do these social boundaries (Christmas/ teenage sex and pregnancy) – and the manner in which the Project keeps trampling over them – uphold some social notion of individual rights? How do the reader’s expectations for ‘the individual’ in a global society impact on our reading of this book?
  • My interest in support structures is shaping the above questions and I’d like to think through it a bit more, before I get into answering them!

Place in the novel:

  • Is there a strong sense of place in this novel?  
  • How important is the setting to the story told?
  • The novel starts with Nicky describing her closet (p7). “You can tell a lot about a person from their closet,” she observes – ie. you can see inside a person by observing their outer appearance and the way they use the space around them, as it were.  A closet is also a very private space, so I’m wondering if there is a tension around public/private space and public/private personas
  • The garden is like a mental and emotional oasis within the walls of the institution, though it also appears on the surface to be a physical oasis in the desert itself. Ref, p25…. Again, how are places vested with emotional energy  in this novel?
  • The place Nicky is taken to in the desert is barren.  There are “no windows,” the people who work there mostly lack names (those that are named, like Alice, quickly disappear without a trace); food appears in the kitchen without any obvious human presence to accompany it; the other travelers don’t know where this place is; they are not permitted to see the news or know what date it is; there is a lack of personality and community.  How does the emptiness of this institution and the anonymity of the people who work there play on our imaginations?  To my mind this empty anonymity helps us develop a sense that ‘big brother is watching.’ This feeling is further activated each time Nicky mentions her bracelet, or closed circuit TV, or refers to the people who have taken her in anonymous tones (‘they’, etc).  What are society’s fears surrounding ‘big brother’? How do such fears connect to adolescence in our society?
  • I’m not into symbolism in a big way.  On its own I think it can be a bit cloying, but consider for a moment the very barren nature of the Project in the desert (and like the desert).  The barrenness of this setting dominates the novel.  It is deliberately (?) repetitious until nearly the very end, when the five travellers begin to consider their escape.  Now consider the thunderstorm, less in terms of basic symbolism; more in terms of the sense of change and possibility it creates for the reader.  [pp179-180: “‘I think it is going to rain,’ he [Paul] says after  a while. ‘What? Rain? You’ve got to be kidding.’  ‘No.’ ‘We’re in the desert. It never rains in the desert.’ ‘Sometimes it does.'”]  The symbolic meaning of this is overtly stated by the characters themselves [p 182 “‘Rain in the desert.  If it can rain in the desert…’ ‘…anything is possible,’ he finishes for me.”] and connects to Nicky’s observation that “My closet door is open.  Inside it my shoes are all muddled up.” (183).  There can be no doubt for the reader that things are changing….
  • I really need to work on this more, so… to be cont…


  • Is this a coming-of-age story? What makes it so? What is maturity in this novel? What signals adulthood/independence?
  • It is described as a thriller… what makes it so (in terms of language used, plot, characterisation, setting, etc.)?
  • The Project seems to describe itself as an international organisation designed to benefit people. Ref, p50, p128, etc…..  It works in secrecy and uses espionage, kidnapping, sequestering techniques, etc.  What social fears does ‘the Project’ play on to create this journey for the reader? Does this help the reader approach this novel through specific generic conventions?


  • Perhaps an aside, but Nicky makes specific mention to a number of other books; Harry Potter (55), The Grinch (95, 179, etc.),Tomorrow When the War Began (186), etc.. Does mention of these texts guide the reader towards a particular reading?
  • Again with the garden… p25… is this opening up into/discovery of a magic garden asking the reader to draw on previous experience of such gardens (The Secret Garden, Tom’s Midnight Garden, for example – though I realise these texts may be ‘old’ and consequently unfamiliar to young readers)? Is the garden a familiar metaphor in New Zealand culture? Does the boundary crossing between institution and garden hold particular cultural meaning?


  • The language used is fairly matter-of-fact… interspersed with loads of questions.  How does the language help create the novel? How does it add to our sense of ‘Big Brother is watching’?
  • How much is in the future tense, the past, the present? to what effect?
  • What do we know of each of these characters? And when are we given this information? (I’m thinking of all of them, instructors; travellers; everyone… but take Tina, for example, who seems at first to be a bit of a flaky dieting princess… but who slips off her bracelet at the end and comments ‘My diet. I seem to have lost some weight finally.” – what do we really know of Tina’s motivations/cunning?!)
  • Time, timetables, rituals (like Christmas and birthdays), travel-time (and concepts of distance and whereabouts) feature hugely.  They are referred to continually and add to the plot – but how is time arranged in this novel to create the power relationships around the travellers and the Project?  How is it described? How is it connected to power in the novel?
  • Consider also the symbolism attached to Christmas… and how Nicky connects it to freedom (the last lines of the novel, certainly, are “It’s Christmas Eve.” (p200))… then ask how this ritual motivates the reader to engage with Nicky’s race against time – and how it makes time critical in the novel.


  • There is a huge element of political violence/control; organisational domination of the individual; international disregard for legal rights… how might this be read in terms of violence?
  • At the end, Nicky shoots and kills a man, which clearly disturbs her – but we are invited to excuse this act of violence as both self-defense and defense of an injured loved one (an excuse made acceptable by NZ law) [NB p197: “I shot him.  I killed him.’ ‘You had to, or he would have killed you and Jake and probably every one of us. You did what you had to do.'”]
As I think of things to add, it will show up under the Ella West or Thieves tags, to be found in the word cloud to the right.

Texts that invite comparison

Basically forthcoming…

Start with the rest of the trilogy, of course…

This concept of a ‘Big Brother’ with international influence is an interesting threat and a social concern that invites comparison.  

How to use this blog

Mindmaps help me think critically.  They help me see the links between things and plot a course through all the observations and questions that a text provokes when I read it ‘as a text.’  This blog is a mindmap of sorts; full of random thoughts and relevant-seeming quotations or ideas.

  • There is a tag cloud to the right of the blog, which shows the topics I am exploring as ‘tags.’
  • You can also use the search bar at the bottom of the page to see if a particular word/book/author/theme is mentioned.
  • Each time I bring a NZ author into the discussion for the first time, I add an “Introducing the author” blog. This is easily found at the beginning of the section under that author.
  • I have a section titled ‘Blog Notes’ in which I explain my blogging style.
  • I have a ‘Literary Resources’ section which includes general ideas on literature and its study as well as the questions I apply to any text I study.
  • These questions (eg. Character Questions) may be useful to any other reader wishing to look at this text differently (refer to very early on in the blogging history of this section).
  • I absolutely welcome discussion: comments, suggestions, ideas, criticisms… please do!

Wests’s Thieves: a History

Awards won:  

Finalist in the New Zealand Post Children’s Book Award: Senior Fiction 2007

Children’s Literature Foundation of New Zealand Notable Books List 2007

Publishing History:

First published by Longacre Press (now owned by Random House), 2006, it is the first in a trilogy.  The second book is Anywhere but here; the third, Real Life.

Bibliography of secondary literature:

Author information:

Refer earlier blog: Introducing Ella West  

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