Spider in a Tree

Susan Stinson  - published October 2013

October 2013 · 9781618730695 · trade paper · 336pp | 9781618730701 · ebook

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,” Mr. 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’ wife, who is visited by ecstasy. Ordinary grace, human failings, and extraordinary convictions combine in unexpected ways to animate this New England tale.

Reviews and Notices

“Edwards sees evidence of divine grace everywhere, but in a world “haunted by work and sin,” the characters fight to sublimate their bodies and the natural environment, and their culture is shaped by a belief in the uselessness of earthly pleasure and inevitability of mortality and judgement. This combination of “absence, presence, and consolation” motivates the complicated inner lives of these well-realized characters, whose psyches Stinson explores in empathetic and satisfying depth.”
Rain Taxi Review

“The book is billed as “a novel of the First Great Awakening,” and Stinson tries to do just that, presenting us with a host of viewpoints from colonists to slaves and even insects. She gives an honest imagining of everyday people caught up in extraordinary times, where ecstatic faith, town politics and human nature make contentious bedfellows. Although the novel was slow to pull me in, by the end I felt I had an intimate glance into the disparate lives of these 18th-century residents of Northampton, Massachusetts.”
Historical Novel Review

Rick Kleffel interviews Susan Stinson (mp3 link).

“Ultimately, ‘Spider in a Tree’ is a lesson in what not to expect. Stinson eludes the clichés usually associated with religious extremism to peel away the humans underneath. We speak of a loving God, who asks us to embark upon a deadly war. We most easily see the sins in others that we are ourselves guilty of. Every ambition to perfect ourselves has a very human cost. As we reach for what we decide is the divine, we reveal our most fragile human frailties. Words cannot capture us; but we in all our human hubris, are quite inclined to capture words.”
The Agony Column

The Mindful Reader: A wonderful read about Jonathan Edwards and the Great AwakeningConcord Monitor

Awakening Edwards: Jonathan Edwards in the hands of a Northampton novelistValley Advocate

Local author’s novel imagines life in Jonathan Edwards’ NorthamptonDaily Hampshire Gazette

“As a Puritan preacher who suspends listeners above the sulfurous fires of hell, Jonathan Edwards commands center stage in this compelling historical novel. With mesmerizing narrative gifts, Stinson exposes readers to the full force of Edwards’ brimstone sermonizing. But she also lets readers hear Edwards’ voice in other registers, giving compassionate reassurance to his troubled wife, extending tender forgiveness to a despairing sinner, reflecting pensively on how God manifests his wisdom in a lowly spider. But the Edwards voice that most readers will find most irresistible is his inner voice, laden with grief at a young daughter’s death, perplexed at his spiritual status as master of a household slave. . . . An impressive chronicle conveying the intense spiritual yearnings that illuminate a colonial world of mud, disease, and fear.”
Booklist (Starred Review)


New: BookslutReligion Dispatches

Lambda LiteraryWriter’s Voice, Book ConnectionPlum Journal, “How to Fall

9/26/13 Springfield Republican: Writer Susan Stinson of Northampton honors theologian with Bridge Street Cemetery tours

Susan Stinson on The Bill Newman Show.

Listen to Susan Stinson on the Writers Voice special, six-part series exploring the literature, spirit and meaning of the Connecticut River: The River Runs Through Us. In Episode One, historian Kerry Buckley talks about the history and impact of the Connecticut River in New England. Also, author Susan Stinson talks about her forthcoming historical novel SPIDER IN A TREE. Based in Northampton, Massachusetts, it’s about the life of 18th century Calvinist theologian Jonathan Edwards.

Praise for Susan Stinson and Spider in a Tree

“A fascinating trip back in time and through the human spirit, a story of longing, seeking, loving and struggling that seemed to me as engaging and fresh as anything you might read about a contemporary small town.”
Concord Monitor

“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. . . . Weaving together archival letters, historical detail, and fictional twists, Stinson vividly resurrects this emotional historical period prior to the American Revolution.”
Library Journal

“Stinson restores personhood and complexity to figures who have shriveled into caricature. . . . 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.”
Publishers Weekly.

“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

“With dazzling poetic prose, Susan Stinson conjures the sensibility of a world three hundred years distant from our own. She captures the drama of heart and the idiom of spirit in 18th century New England. Like a great actor, Stinson disappears into every unique character she portrays and thus offers up the range of our humanity. (And then there are the quivering June bugs and dancing spiders!) She weaves the contradictions, blessings, and revelations into a vibrant, compelling tale of faith, freedom, and slavery in an elusive god’s marvelous creation.”
—Andrea Hairston, aufhor of Redwood and Wildfire

“Wonderfully fuses the historic and the imaginative.”
—Kenneth Minkema, Executive Director, Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University

“In spare, eloquent prose Stinson mines depths most writers shy away from.”—Alison Smith, Name All the Animals 

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.

Susan also gives Northampton History and Jonathan Edwards cemetery walking tours for individuals or groups.

Susan Stinson on her tricycle at the Bridge Street Cemetery in Northampton, Mass., photo by Jeep Wheat.

Susan Stinson photo by Jeep Wheat


Writing Room at Forbes Library
Wednesday and Saturday mornings

Local History/​Local Novelist Series at Forbes Library
Reading/Lecture Series Curator

Monthly Radio Segment: Book Swap
With Bob Flahery, WHMP

Massachusetts Library Assocation Conference, April 26, 2013
Panel: Books in the Electronic Age

Smith College Summer at Smith
Talk: “The Connecticut River Valley as Literary Landscape” July 2013

Cover illustration by Elisabeth Alba.