Sweeney’s Booknotes: Spider in a Tree

Susan Stinson, Spider in a Tree: A Novel (Easthampton, MA: Small Beer Press, 2013)

Spider in a Tree

Whenever I teach a survey of American religion, I require students to read historical novels. My goal for this assignment is to awaken the historical imaginations of my charges, helping them sense what it was like to be a common religious person in the communities we study. This is not an easy task. I do not have a time machine, and cannot transport them personally to the places I describe. Most of the standard survey texts inform them mainly of megatrends and the concerns of Christian elites. So in an effort to help them see, hear, smell, taste, and feel the worlds of most religious people, I ask them to read a major work of historical fiction.

I decided this afternoon to add Susan Stinson’s latest to the list of historical novels from which my survey students may choose. It seeks to recreate Edwards’ lost eighteenth-century world, from the early years of his ministry to his firing and removal to the Stockbridge Indian mission. Told mainly from the perspective of people like Edwards’ wife, Sarah, Edwards’ first slave, Leah, Edwards’ cousins, the Hawley boys (who for a season were his enemies), even the spiders, beetles, and other bugs in Edwards’ house and yard, it is a fascinating tale about the mystery and humanity of Edwards’ daily life. Well informed by recent scholarship in American social history, especially social history on colonial Massachusetts, it is anchored from beginning to end in things that really happened–to Edwards and those around him.

Some readers will object to some of Stinson’s creative embellishments. They will find it hard to imagine Edwards writing in a tree, or spiders preaching silent sermons. They will wish for more of Edwards’ own biblical theology, and less of Stinson’s musings on the vagaries of nature. I, for one, regret the suggestion that Edwards was fired for requiring a public profession of godliness (he required no such thing).

But those who ignore this lovely book due to objections such as these have only themselves to blame for the loss. This is not a simple history. It is fiction, good fiction. It will take you places history by itself can never go.

Though not for young children (it depicts adult themes), this book is highly recommended.