Spider in a Tree

Overview

"Stinson reads the natural world as well as Scripture, searching for meaning. But instead of the portents of an angry god, what she finds there is something numinous, complicated, and radiantly human."—Alison Bechdel, author of Fun Home

"Through an ardent faith in the written word Susan Stinson is a novelist who translates a mundane world into the most poetic of possibilities."—Alice Sebold, author of The Lovely Bones

"Wonderfully fuses the ...

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Spider in a Tree

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Overview

"Stinson reads the natural world as well as Scripture, searching for meaning. But instead of the portents of an angry god, what she finds there is something numinous, complicated, and radiantly human."—Alison Bechdel, author of Fun Home

"Through an ardent faith in the written word Susan Stinson is a novelist who translates a mundane world into the most poetic of possibilities."—Alice Sebold, author of The Lovely Bones

"Wonderfully fuses the historic and the imaginative."—Kenneth Minkema, executive director, Jonathan Edwards Center

Jonathan Edwards is considered America's most brilliant theologian. He was also a slave owner. This is the story of the years he spent preaching in eighteenth century Northampton, Massachusetts.

In his famous sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," Edwards compared a person dangling a spider over a hearth to God holding a sinner over the fires of hell. Here, spiders and insects preach back. No voice drowns out all others: Leah, a young West African woman enslaved in the Edwards household; Edwards's young cousins Joseph and Elisha, whose father kills himself in fear for his soul; and Sarah, Edwards's wife, who is visited by ecstasy. Ordinary grace, human failings, and extraordinary convictions combine in unexpected ways to animate this New England tale.

Susan Stinson is the author of three novels and a collection of poetry and lyric essays and was awarded the Lambda Literary Foundation's Outstanding Mid-Career Novelist Prize. Writer in Residence at Forbes Library in Northampton, Massachusetts, she is also an editor and writing coach.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
08/19/2013
We tend to use the word “puritan” as a stand-in for prudery, small-mindedness, and backbiting, forgetting that the actual Puritans were fallible people trying to live up to extraordinarily high moral standards while knowing that God was everywhere—in the wind and the leaves and the merest insects—august, confusing, beautiful, and terrifying. In her fictional portrait of Jonathan Edwards, the most famous Puritan preacher and theologian, along with his wife and children, neighbors and slaves, Stinson restores personhood and complexity to figures who have shriveled into caricature. Here, Edwards writes constantly and works ceaselessly to create and sustain revivals, but also to tamp down his jealousy of other preachers and his irritation with his congregants. His slaves are allowed to join the church and marry, but they can’t be sure that their children won’t be sold. Like God, Stinson sees into everyone’s mind and soul—not just those of Edwards himself, but of his wife Sarah; Leah, both slave and committed church member; the Haleys, their neighbors and relatives; and, when necessary, beetles and spiders. As Stinson says in a note to the reader, entering Edwards’ language and thought “slows the modern mind and tongue”: for readers willing to make that adjustment, the payoff is not just the recovered history but the beautifully evoked sense of lives lived under the eye, not only of prying neighbors, but of God, with all the terror and possibility that entailed. (Oct.)
Kirkus Reviews
Stinson's (Venus of Chalk, 2004, etc.) novel about the life of 18th-century theologian Jonathan Edwards offers readers a heavy-handed dose of old-time religion. Few would agree that life in the 1700s was easy. Religious tenets were important providers of structure, guidance and comfort for American colonists. Edwards, considered one of the foremost preachers of his era, is credited with inspiring the First Great Awakening, a period of time that stirred many colonists to search for personal redemption and spurred numerous revivals throughout settlements in the New England area. Stinson attempts to capture the spirit of this time and its aftermath through Edwards' writings and other documentation and tells the story of the Edwards family, including their two slaves, Leah and Saul, and the circumstances that lead to a final rift between Edwards and his flock. Edwards' sermons initially create such powerful emotions that many worshippers, overwhelmed by divine visitation are whipped into a frenzy of crying and swooning. But these experiences are soon replaced by suspicion, as some people associate the Northampton preacher with several unsettling events, including the death of a young girl, the suicide of Edwards' uncle, a scandal involving the youth of the town and the irresponsible behavior of a family member. A nature lover, Edwards contemplates spiders and other spindly legged creatures and jots down observations as he perches in the branches of an elm tree, and his wife, Sarah, tries--and fails--to concoct curatives using spider webs. His credibility among the community waning, Edwards wonders why the sermons of visiting preachers seem to invigorate his flock while his words are met with snores. But a milestone sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," reinvigorates worshippers--at least for a short time. Edwards, though, is eventually terminated by the church council. Stinson, whose impeccable research dominates the book, might have had more success presenting her documentation as a biography rather than attempting a fictionalized version of Edwards' life: The one-dimensional characters and excerpts from his writings are no more engaging than required reading in a high school textbook.
Library Journal
10/15/2013
Famous theologian Jonathan Edwards (1703–58) comes to life in this mid-18th-century story of the First Great Awakening, a revivalist movement that swept Protestant Europe and the American Colonies. Spanning two decades, Stinson's fourth novel (after Venus of Chalk) is set in Northampton, MA, where Edwards, a slave owner and minister, brings his congregation to new religious heights. As God-fearing fervor sweeps across New England, Edwards is among its leading ministers. Members of the Northampton congregation rise and fall with the awakening as religious convictions are challenged and questions surrounding sin and slavery are theologically debated. VERDICT Weaving together archival letters, historical detail, and fictional twists, Stinson vividly resurrects this emotional historical period prior to the American Revolution. The quoted passages require some deep reading to understand Edwards's theological positions, but readers interested in the spiritual life of the early American settlers will enjoy this in-depth and humanizing connection to the past.—Andrea Brooks, Northern Kentucky Univ. Lib., Highland Heights
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781618730695
  • Publisher: Small Beer Press
  • Publication date: 10/8/2013
  • Pages: 300
  • Sales rank: 426,779
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author


Susan Stinson: Susan Stinson is the author of three novels and a collection of poetry and lyric essays. In 2011, she was awarded the Lambda Literary Foundation's Outstanding Mid-Career Novelist Prize. Writer in Residence at Forbes Library in Northampton, Massachusetts, she is also an editor and writing coach.
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