cover image Spider in a Tree

Spider in a Tree

Susan Stinson. Small Beer (Consortium, dist.), $16 trade paper (320p) ISBN 978-1-61873-069-5

We tend to use the word “puritan” as a stand-in for prudery, small-mindedness, and backbiting, forgetting that the actual Puritans were fallible people trying to live up to extraordinarily high moral standards while knowing that God was everywhere—in the wind and the leaves and the merest insects—august, confusing, beautiful, and terrifying. In her fictional portrait of Jonathan Edwards, the most famous Puritan preacher and theologian, along with his wife and children, neighbors and slaves, Stinson restores personhood and complexity to figures who have shriveled into caricature. Here, Edwards writes constantly and works ceaselessly to create and sustain revivals, but also to tamp down his jealousy of other preachers and his irritation with his congregants. His slaves are allowed to join the church and marry, but they can’t be sure that their children won’t be sold. Like God, Stinson sees into everyone’s mind and soul—not just those of Edwards himself, but of his wife Sarah; Leah, both slave and committed church member; the Haleys, their neighbors and relatives; and, when necessary, beetles and spiders. As Stinson says in a note to the reader, entering Edwards’ language and thought “slows the modern mind and tongue”: for readers willing to make that adjustment, 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. (Oct.)