Spider in a Tree by Susan Stinson

Susan Stinon’s novel Spider in a Tree is quite a departure from previous works of hers that I’ve read and reviewed, like Martha Moody and Fat Girl Dances with Rocks and Belly Songs. Typically, Stinson’s writing examines the lives of fat lesbians, their joy, the romances, their adventures with other decent people. However, Spider in a Tree is historical fiction set in the 1700s just after the First Great Awakening, and I didn’t even know what that meant. I just like Stinson. In order to avoid bumbling the synopsis, I’ll give you what the publisher wrote:

Jonathan Edwards compared a person dangling a spider over a hearth to God holding a sinner over hellfire in his most famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Here, spiders and insects preach back. No voice, no matter how mighty, drowns all others. Grace, human failings, and extraordinary convictions combine unexpectedly in this New England tale.

According to her Twitter bio, Stinson lives in Northampton, Massachusetts, where the novel takes place. In the acknowledgements, Stinson thanks libraries, including Yale University, Andover Newton Theology School, and the New York Public Library, for access to Edwards’s papers. The authenticity of the work is not in doubt, so if you’re interested in historical fiction stays close to its origins, this is your novel.

Engraved by R Babson & J Andrews; Print. by Wilson & Daniels – (1855) The history of Connecticut, from the first settlement of the colony to the adoption of the present constitution, 1, New Haven, CT: Durrie and Peck Retrieved on 14 October 2010. ISBN978-1418147150.

Spider in a Tree was yet another Biscuit Book Club book, and we both found ourselves highly involved in the novel, but hesitant to recommend it. Why? A solid knowledge of The Great Awakening would have helped. Knowing more about Jonathan Edwards, the “greatest theologian and philosopher of British American Puritanism” according to Encyclopedia Britannica, could have filled in some gaps. If you’re interested in religious history and its movements, this book is for you. Let me tell you more, however, from the perspective of someone who mostly does not read historical fiction nor study religion.

At first, I had questions about why so many people joined Jonathan Edwards’s church. This wasn’t spelled out in the novel, at least, not that we caught. And through the years, Edwards’s new members trail off, even dying out for several years, and some decide not to join the church after Edwards decides, based on Biblical support, that a new member must make a public declaration of faith and their desire to join the church. But what was it that first caused folks to dislike Edwards? At one poing while preaching, Edwards thinks, “In May in the grip of the Awakening, Mrs. Clapp might have burst into tears and begun to praise God at the sound of a Bible verse. Now, though, she rolled her eyes.”

For the entirety of the novel, he’s trying to boost numbers without straying from the Bible, while his wife, Sarah, has ears all over the place: “She heard more criticism and gossip than should could stomach.” She can confirm that their lives in Northampton are insecure and her spouse will likely be run off, meaning she and their (eventually) eleven children will need to leave.

But the entirety of Spider in a Tree isn’t about Edwards. His wife and two slaves each get many of their own chapters in which readers follow their third-person narrations. Edwards’s two cousins whose father commits suicide in the first chapters, also have side stories. The elder desires to be a preacher but is deterred by Edwards’s methods and turns to law. The younger ridicules church, becoming a solider and the father of bastard twins, causing quite the scandal that Edwards cannot shake and demands it righted by marriage.

Given that the novel is set in the early 1700s, death is everywhere for these characters, and comes easily. Grief fills the book, even as people must continue on with their sadness. I never forgot the setting as I read about characters losing teeth, physical health, their lives, etc.

In the end, Biscuit and I discussed what this novel is “about.” Does it have a narrative arc? We landed on something like Spider in a Tree is an extended slice-of-life for which we didn’t quite understand the beginning and know not what happens to the Edwards family in the end (I guess we could have Googled it). While we lived in that slice-of-life, we felt lots of emotion and cared about the characters, especially Leah and Saul, the slaves Edwards owns. Other preachers claim it goes against God to own slaves, but Edwards fails to agree, citing text that states a master should be good to his slaves.

So, would I recommend Stinson’s novel? Depends! The first folks who came to mind whom I thought should read Spider in a Tree were book bloggers Karissa and Lou. A historical-religious fiction novel was an interesting departure from my and Biscuit’s usual choices, and we were grateful to experience something new.

15 comments

  1. As I said to you in Comments on Sunday, I looked into this, just out of random interest really, though I like to see how religious movements intersect with old literature, in this case of course The Scarlet Letter, which must be set a generation of so before Edwards’ time.
    It’s a shame if Stinson managed an historically accurate ‘life’ but failed to draw any conclusions. Was it maybe the subject of a thesis?

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    • No, not a thesis. I think simply interest in the area in which she lives (she’s in Northampton). Stinson is probably your age and has been writing for a long time, so when this newer, different novel came out, I was surprised. I wonder to what extent The Great Awakening still affects Northampton today.

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  2. This book definitely sounds like an experience. I love the title but true historical fiction can be a bit dry. Yet, religion in that period of time was all kinds of fanatical and it can be fascinating to imagine the mindset of the people living it. It seems like this is an excellent book club read.

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    • Yes! I’d love to know more about what people were thinking, especially those who engaged in physical worship like rolling around on the floor or passing out. Are they different people at home? Is it like that movie The Witch in which everyone is fanatical at all times? Do they truly fear the devil is after them? And what leads a person to stop believing?

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  3. I had to read part (or maybe all? I don’t remember) of Edward’s sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God when I was in high school as part of an American Lit class. Can’t say I was a fan back then, or now, ha ha. If I read this I probably would also most care about the slaves or family members.

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    • Sometimes I think literature is too narrowly defined as being fiction, but when I think about myself, I think lit = fiction. However, I do hear about more classes in which teachers bring in prominent non-fiction that represents either the dominant attitude or changing philosophy of the time, and it really gives the class a more well-rounded feel. For example, when I took a Victorian lit class, we also read Darwin.

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  4. This does indeed sound very interesting! I already know a fair bit about Edwards and the Great Awakening because they were important in the history of reformed evangelicalism, and then also because in the last few years Edwards’ role has been reevaluated by the church in light of his position on slavery and other issues. I’ll definitely be picking this up.

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  5. This does sound like something I’d be interested in! I’ve heard of Edwards but know very little about him. I’ve just posted a review today about a book that looks into evangelicalism in the 20th and 21st centuries in America but it would be interesting to see how its origins go even further back to men like Edwards.

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  6. It’s funny, when you said “I guess I could have googled it” I must admit that thought often strikes me when I’m reading and reviewing a book, but I sort of think that googling answers left unsaid in books is cheating in a way. Like, the authors shouldn’t assume we can just google shit, it seems lazy on their part, ya know?

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    • Maybe not lazy, but more like they have a certain audience in mind, and perhaps I am not that audience. Or, if my history knowledge is wimpy at best, it’s up to me to fill in the gaps. However, with this minister, he was so famous and wrote so much that Googling would not have helped in a significant way. I wasn’t going to become a scholar with Google.

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