Spider in a Tree

Written by Susan Stinson
Review by Susan Cook

The proverb says, “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” but I might extend that to “cover blurb.” On reading the reviews for Spider in a Tree, I was tempted to send it back; it sounded like a predictable and wearisome deconstruction of faith in general and Jonathan Edwards in particular. I suspect the reviewers have read no more of Edwards than “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” if that. Fortunately, Stinson has read much more.

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. The least sympathetic character for me was Jonathan Edwards himself, but perhaps that’s because I teach Early American Literature and have a firm picture of ‘my’ Jonathan Edwards in my head.

My only real criticism is not with the novel itself but the afterword: to set this story in context, it would be helpful if readers unfamiliar with Edwards knew his fate after leaving Northampton (where this novel ends). Descried for applying old-fashioned notions of church membership, and remembered, inaccurately, for ‘fire and brimstone’ sermons, he went on to be invited to be president of New Jersey College (Princeton), but died from the new smallpox inoculation which he took to encourage others to do the same.