In her historical novel Spider in a Tree, (Small Beer Press), Susan Stinson explores the Great Awakening of eighteenth-century New England through the eyes of minister Jonathan Edwards (best known for his sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God), his family, and his Northampton neighbors, as the religious revival ebbs and flows. With a keen eye for the details of daily life, the author examines the religious fervor of the times. Told from multiple points of view, the story shows a people whose religion was a strongly felt presence in almost every aspect of their daily lives. For some, this presence was a source of great joy; for others, it cast a shadow of fear, self-doubt, and guilt. Susan Stinson ably shows the varieties of religious experience and brings the reader vividly into the mindset of eighteenth-century Puritanism. It’s a challenging novel that delves deeply into a complex and sometimes confusing aspect of eighteenth-century New England.
Susan recently allowed me to interview her about Spider in a Tree.
Why Jonathan Edwards? What attracted you to the subject?
I live in Northampton [Massachusetts], just across from the Bridge Street cemetery. I was spending a lot of time walking and writing in the cemetery — which is a beautiful, green, quiet place. Members of the Edwards family are buried there, and there are two markers in his honor. I started reading the gravestones and became fascinated by the people and their stories. That led me to start read the work of Jonathan Edwards, which I found brilliant and deeply challenging.
A considerable amount of research went into this book. How long did it take you to research and write? Did you ever feel overwhelmed by the research?
It took me more than ten years to research and write the book. I had never read Jonathan Edwards before I began work on the book, not even in high school, so I was starting from scratch. I didn’t think I would ever get a handle on why Northampton dismissed him from his pulpit, but I ended up feeling that I had at least a sense of the theological, social and personal issues involved. I really struggled with getting the details and textures of daily life right, until, through the Jonathan Edwards Center, I got access to his will, which listed every item in his household.
I hadn’t realized how frenzied the religious fervor was during the Great Awakening. It almost seems like mass hysteria, which you brought vividly to life. Can you say a little about how you reacted when you learned about the passionate reactions of listeners to the preachers of the movement?
It made so much sense to me that people who lived in such a hierarchical culture would find bodily, emotional and spiritual expression and release in a way that worked within their culture and beliefs.
Guilt seems to be an overwhelming, inescapable burden for the characters in the book. What do you think it was like living with such a dark cloud hanging over one’s daily life?
I have to think about that for a moment. I don’t think of it as guilt so much as a habit of self-searching, of examining one’s own inner life for the inevitable signs of sin. One of the things I find compelling about that is that someone like Jonathan Edwards, who devoted his life to the rigorous pursuit of such a practice, and to pouring his great mental energy and his gifts as a writer and speaker into trying to root out sin, was immersed, along with many others in his culture, in the practice of enslaving other human beings. Despite his efforts, his theology and his brilliance, he missed the sinfulness of that. Still, though, I also see these lives as full of deep joys, including the regular experiences of beauty they found in the sacred, but also within their families and many of their relationships with each other.
Did researching and writing this book affect your own attitudes toward religion and spirituality?
I’m private about my own religious beliefs, but I started from a place of deep respect and a desire to learn as much as I could in order to accurately represent the inner lives of the characters. I ended with deeper knowledge, deeper respect, and ongoing questions.
The story has several point of view characters. Did you have a favorite, and why?
I love them all. I really do. Leah, who was enslaved in the Edwards household, was a great pleasure to write. Writing from the point of view of Elisha Hawley as a boy sneaking out at night to go swimming in the river was one of my favorite moments to be in close with a character. Another was Jonathan Edwards thinking about his wife Sarah’s spiritual experiences in terms of honey, which is a metaphor that comes from him via the Bible.
Insects and nature play an important part as supporting actors in the story, observed by the characters and narrator in minute detail, and sometimes even commenting on the action. Why did you choose to give spiders and beetles and birds their own voices in the story?
There are several reasons. Jonathan Edwards himself used spiders and insects as imagery in his writing, most famously in an image from his sermon “Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God” of God dangling a sinner over the fires of hell as a person might dangle a spider over a hearth fire. Also, I realized during the course of my research that insects would have been very frequently present in the lives of people in eighteenth-century New England, so, in some senses, they came to seem to me to be almost messengers from that other time. Finally, I loved the idea of insect sermons, of spiders and insects preaching back to Jonathan Edwards from their own perspectives.
What was the most surprising thing you learned in your research?
I didn’t know when I started working on a novel inspired by Jonathan Edwards that he had an intimate, lifelong relationship with slavery. It was profoundly surprising.
What’s your current project?
I’ve got a couple of things in mind, but the one I’m working on right now is a novel about Jonathan Edward’s grandmother. That is a wild story.
Thank you, Susan, and good luck with your new project!
For more about Spider in a Tree and Susan’s other books, check out Susan Stinson’s website.