Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Thief includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Stephanie Landsem. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
The second book in The Living Water Series, The Thief tells the story of two unlikely friends—a Roman centurion and a poor Jewish girl living in first-century Jerusalem during the height of Jesus’ ministry. Longinus, the Roman centurion, feels aimless in the wake of his friend’s tragic death, while Nissa is overwhelmed by guilt about her secret life as a thief. Together they witness Jesus restore sight to Nissa’s blind brother, and increasingly find themselves drawn toward this healer and prophet. Could Jesus be the answer to their prayers?
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. “You aren’t worth dying for, Mouse. Nobody is” (p. 12). Discuss this first introduction to Mouse and Dismas, the two best thieves in Jerusalem. How would you characterize them? How does this statement foreshadow later events in the story? Do you think it’s possible to be both a “good” and “bad” person? Use examples from the story and your own life to support your answer.
2. On page 26, a possible theme of the novel emerges when Nissa concludes, “She was a failure at everything—everything but stealing.” How does failure haunt both Nissa and Longinus? What have they each “failed” to do? Do you think failure is a motivation for the choices they make?
3. Consider the main characters’ relationships with their parents. In what ways are they typical relationships? In what ways are they atypical?
4. Cedron’s faith in God is unshakable. On page 43, he prays, “The Lord is my strength and my shield . . . my heart trusts in him and I am helped.” Why does Nissa not share her brother’s faith? What makes her believe God has abandoned her?
5. Revisit the scene where Jesus cures Cedron of his blindness, beginning on page 58 and running through page 62. Is this scene similar to the story found in the Bible? How does the event act as a catalyst for the rest of the happenings in the novel—both good and bad?
6. In the beginning of the story, Nissa is in a somewhat unique position in her family as the sole breadwinner. Consider the ways in which Nissa defies expectations as a woman living in first-century Jerusalem. Would you call her a rebel? Why or why not? 7. At what moment do you think Longinus and Nissa fall in love? What is ironic about their love story?
8. Discuss the character of Longinus. Do you like him? In what ways does his character change throughout the story?
9. What symbolism can you glean from Nissa’s alternate persona, “Mouse”? How is she a “mouse” in her life as a thief? As Nissa?
10. “She climbed the steps up to the shimmering water. She wouldn’t bathe today. No amount of water, no matter how pristine, would wash away her guilt. No almsgiving would atone for her sin” (p. 175). Talk about Nissa’s role in the murder of the priest. Do you think that Nissa is guilty? Why or why not?
11. On his way to the garden of Gethsemane, Longinus’s “feet seemed to fly along the stones” (p. 248). For the first time since his friend’s death, Longinus has light feet and an unburdened heart. What reasons can you give for Longinus’s new outlook on life?
12. In what way(s) is Nissa’s situation with Dismas similar to Judas’s situation with Jesus? Draw similarities between the two situations—who is Nissa most like, Jesus or Judas?
13. On page 262, Pilate says, “Sometimes the innocent have to pay the price for the guilty.” Explain how this is true in several instances in The Thief.
14. What is “the revolution” referred to at the end of the story? Do you think that Longinus and Nissa live happily ever after?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. The Thief explores a moment in history that is still very much a part of our collective unconscious—the execution of Jesus and his subsequent resurrection. Have a movie night with your book club and watch The Passion of the Christ (2004). Is the Jesus depicted in the movie similar to the Jesus depicted in The Thief? Can you find similarities between the novel and the movie?
2. On page 159, Longinus wonders to himself what he would “give to find the peace [Stephen] had?” In many ways, Stephen represents a turning point for Longinus—a man he had wanted to find and put to death, but then decides to forgive and release. What did Longinus ultimately give to find the peace Stephen has? Share with your group what this sort of peace would look like for you. How would it manifest in your life? What would you give—or have you given—to have such peace?
3. Revisit the scene on page 187 when Nissa goes to the Pool of Siloam and struggles to decide if she should accept Longinus's marriage proposal. Plan a trip with your book club to a local pool, lake, or beach. Ask each member to share a time when they had to make a tough decision. How did you decide what to do? In retrospect, did you make the right decision? Did Nissa?
A Conversation with Stephanie Landsem
1. Your Living Water Series involves serious and intense research on first-century life. Describe the process that went into the making of this novel. What was the most challenging part of your research project?
I like to think of research for a new book like the beginning of an archeological dig. I start by mapping out where I need to dig—where I need a little information and where I need to go deeper—then I delve in. Sometimes, I find exactly what I’m expecting, and that’s great. But on the best days, I unearth entirely unexpected bits of information that can flesh out a character, bring the setting to life, or even change the course of the story. I love when that happens! The most challenging part of research is knowing when to stop—when to put away the research books and start writing the story that has taken shape in my head.
2. The Thief is a fiction story based on historical events. In your estimation, how much of this story is true? How much is made-up? What is the line between fiction and fact, and is it important to you in the writing process?
Each book in the Living Water Series is based on an actual encounter with Jesus as recorded in the Gospel of John: the woman at the well, the man born blind, and the raising of Lazarus. I stay true to these accounts, but from them I can branch out into conjecture and imagination. I don’t want to rewrite the Bible, and I know that’s not what my readers want either. What I want to do is imagine the settings, the culture, and the historical era so well that when my readers go back to the pages of the Bible, it is with fresh eyes and a new understanding.
3. Who is your favorite character in the story and why?
I love Nissa. She’s rough around the edges, quick-tempered, and speaks her mind even if it gets her in trouble. But she’s also lonely and hurt. Underneath her tough exterior, she wants what we all want: security and love—and she’s looking for it in all the wrong places. I like to think that if I lived in her time, I would have been the friend she so desperately needed.
4. How did you come to be a writer?
I’ve always loved to read. As a child, I probably got in trouble more often for late-night reading than for just about anything else. Reading is a way to live many lives, to visit other times, places, and even new worlds. You know you’ve read a good book when, after the last page, you feel like you’ve been changed in some way. I wanted to do that, too. I wasn’t at all sure I could, but with lots of prayer, hard work, and tons of encouragement from my family and friends, I hope that I’m becoming the writer I’ve always wanted to be.
5. Do you consider Nissa somewhat of a renegade, especially for her era?
I think Nissa didn’t want to be different. She wished she could be like other women. She knew that stealing—not to mention pretending to be a boy—was wrong, but because of her own failings and her family life, she felt she had no choice. I think many women, especially young women under the influence of our culture, can find themselves backed into a corner much like Nissa, with seemingly nowhere to go and no one to turn to. And unfortunately, I think many of them feel as abandoned by God as she did.
6. The story weaves between Nissa's and Longinus’s points of view. Ultimately, whose story is this?
Both Nissa and Longinus witness a miracle and try to make sense of what they see: Nissa as an insider—a Jewish woman—trapped by her own laws and culture, and Longinus as an outsider looking in and not understanding what he sees. I think the reader ultimately gets to decide which character they identify with the most.
7. According to your bio, you’ve explored ancient ruins and historic buildings across the world. Is there a particular place you’ve visited that inspired the setting for The Thief?
I wish I could say Jerusalem inspired the setting, but I have yet to visit the Holy Land, although it is on the top of my wish list. When I picture the settings in The Thief, I often think of the narrow streets and cramped marketplaces of Tangier, Morocco—one of my most memorable travel experiences. The streets teemed with people and animals, and the markets overflowed with shouting merchants, colorful rugs, and every kind of food. Even though it was crowded, chaotic, and a little frightening, I loved it.
8. Share with us your literary influences. Where do you go for inspiration?
Like many Christian writers, I love Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and George MacDonald. I often go back to their books to be inspired by their skill, wisdom, and imagination. When I read just for fun (which isn’t often enough), I’m all over the place: historical fiction, mysteries, thrillers, and sometimes YA and middle-grade fiction, so that I can talk books with my kids. Any good book, regardless of genre, that keeps me turning pages and leaves me satisfied at the end is an inspiration.
9. What would you name as the major theme(s) of this story? What do you hope readers will remember about your novel?
Many Christians, myself included, have heard the story of Jesus’ crucifixion so many times, we can hardly grasp its meaning. I hoped that by showing a parallel story—Dismas as the innocent man giving up his life for a sinful woman—we could envision Jesus' sacrifice for us with new eyes and better understand its profound impact in a more personal way.
10. Can you share some news about your next novel in The Living Water Series—The Tomb?
The third book in the series tells of the ultimate miracle performed by Jesus not long before his crucifixion—the raising of Lazarus¬ as witnessed by his sister, Martha. Everyone in Bethany admires Martha, the perfect Jewish woman. But Martha harbors a shameful secret, one that will shatter her spotless reputation in Bethany and destroy those she loves most. When her brother Lazarus falls ill, Martha must choose between the safety of the tomb she has built for herself and stepping out to receive ‘the better part’ offered to her by Jesus.