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Book Club Discussion Questions: Spider in a Tree

Questions for Discussion
SPIDER IN A TREE    
 
1.    How are the Jonathan, Leah, Sarah, Saul, Joseph, Elisha and others  in the novel like you and others you know? In what ways are they different?
 
2.    What do you think the fact that this is a novel – a work of fiction--  brings to this history? What does it make possible? What does it leave you wanting more of?  What do you make of the fact that many (but not all) of the characters in the book are based on people who really did live in 18th century New England? 


3.    Do you like the character Jonathan Edwards as a person?  How about Leah? 


4.    Do you find it surprising that the household of Jonathan, an 18th century Calvinist preacher and theologian, included enslaved people?  


5.    What role does religion play in the life of Jonathan Edward? In the life of Leah?  Saul? How does Sarah express her faith? What does it mean to Elisha? 


6.    Have you ever been to any of the places in the book?  New England? Northampton? If you have, how did your experiences in those places relate to them as portrayed in the book?  What do you think the landscape offers or means to Jonathan Edwards? To Leah? Other characters? 


7.    Why do you think the residents of Northampton made the decision to expel the Edwards family? 
8.      Did you come to the book already knowing about Jonathan Edwards and his theology? If yes, what have your experiences with it been?  How did those experiences affect the ways you read the novel? If not, how did you experience it?


9.    Susan Stinson:  "We all bring different perspectives, experiences, emotions, analyses and histories to this discussion, and perhaps different senses of what is sacred. I think that is all of the more reason to examine these stories of deeply-held religious belief as human stories.  I'm not a historian or a theologian. I'm a novelist. I believe that the engagement, empathy and insight we bring to history is shaped by the engagement, empathy and insight with which we approach the telling of stories."

 

Do that sound like a useful approach to history to you?  Can you think of a time from your own life when telling a story was helpful in a tense or complicated moment or subject matter?


10. Did you look at the (small print!) notes on research at the back of the book?  Why or why not? 


11. On pp 115-118, there are quotes from Jonathan Edwards's most famous sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." On p. 304, there is a quote from his treatise, "The Nature of True Virtue."  Do you respond to more strongly to one of these writings from Jonathan Edwards than the other? What do you make of the differences between them? 


12. Do any of the situations or moral dilemmas in the book have implications for current times?  If so, what are they? 

 
13. If you could travel back in time and speak to one of the characters of the book, who would you choose? What would you say?
 

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"This theology haunts us still": a passionate email from a reader

I wrote my novel Spider in a Tree with a commitment to create characters who were eighteenth century Calvinists and also actual people who lived and died (this is true of many of my characters, but not all of them). That is one reason I love the mail below so much. I love the reader/writer's passion, and I love being able to picture her and the rest of her book club sitting around a restaurant table, taking the risk to discuss the history, theology, and stories from my novel together.  Here, with permission, is a very slightly edited version of this reader's email. I wrote some book club discussion questions for them, which I'll include in my next post. #

 

 

Ms. Stinson, I read your book with interest and delight. I grew up in a Southern Baptist home where Jonathan Edwards theology was still taken seriously. I managed to escape that over a long journey. At 75, I am a Humanist with an appreciation for the best in the mythology of the Christian faith, and anger at its misuse in condemnation of those who do not agree with the patriarchal, individualistic, and tribal orthodoxy which supports the Trumpist Republican Party. 


I am in a small book club of other grandmotherly women, all of whom still regularly attend Protestant churches except for myself, and all 7 of us have always voted Democrat. This month is my turn to choose the book and I chose your book, "Spider in a Tree." 

 

We meet next Wednesday night at a local restaurant as is our custom. 
It is our practice for the one who chose the book to prepare questions for discussion. Usually the publisher or author has suggested questions. In this case, I find none. I am a little uneasy about writing my own questions for fear of unintentionally offending others. They know I am not a true believer. I am sure they pray for me. 

I know this is excruciatingly short notice, but perhaps you have been asked before, and may have suggested discussion questions at hand. If you do, I would be most grateful for help. 


Again, I thoroughly enjoyed reading your historical novel which dealt honestly and compassionately with this most formative period in our nation's history. This theology haunts us still. Where I live, I see only great harm done by this threat of God's punishment with hellfire for everything from abortion to homosexuality. I believe the crusade against these two conceal the "greater sin" named before the Civil Rights era of misogyny. Condemning race mixing is no longer fashionable, but "protecting innocent babies from evil women and doctors" and "abominable sex acts" still puts copper in the offering plates. 


As you see, I am passionate about these issues. 
Thank you for your time in reading my request. 

 

I wish you well and look forward to reading more of your talented and inspiring writing. 

 

#

Here's a link to the Book Club Questions for Spider in a Tree

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Remembering Meridith Lawrence

Two fat white women look at each other, smiling, on a sidewalk.  Both have short brown hair. One is in jeans and a jean jacket. One (me) has on red pants, a black shirt and a red coat.

I just learned, through a beautiful, heartbreaking post by her wife Judith Stein, that Meridith Lawrence has died.

 

I met Meridith in the early eighties when she was co-running a Fat Lesbian Group at the Cambridge Women's Center. She had an infectious laugh and lots of knowledge of communities I wanted to be part of. Meridith really was the person who opened to doors for me to explore what it might mean to be a fat dyke who was determined to live a full, complex, self-loving life with plenty of company from others who were doing the same.

 

At first Meridith's lover Judith was mostly a legend — a fat leader and writer who wasn't going to groups any more — but it wasn't too long before I met Judith, too, at a raucous group meal after she gave a reading at New Words, the women's bookstore in Inman Square. Judith and Meridith were so glamorous and sophisticated to me. The love between them was palpable, always. Meridith and I organized a one-time fat swim together at the public pool in JP, across the street from my apartment.

 

I used to run into Meridith on the bus sometimes, too — she talked to me about how to negotiate space in those not-big-enough-seats — I believe she said her response to being shunned by strangers on buses was, "Ummhmm, yes, more room for me."

 

Meridith and Judith threw fantastic parties full of people I wanted to talk to, in their home filled with fat art. They were generous with me in more ways than I can say. They hosted me and other writers from Western Mass when we came east to the big city to go the OutWrite Conference, that wonderful gathering of queer writers that happened year after year in the nineties. They went, too, of course. They paid the fee for me to go to a fat conference.

 

Meridith had bold opinions and an organizer's soul. She had warmth. She was brave, and she talked about things that had been taboo. Once I interviewed Judith and Meridith about the history of fat activism at the Michigan Womyn's Music. I was on radio shows with them in the eighties, too. (Charlotte Cooper digitized those — I'll try to link to them in the comments.) Oh, and the anniversary boat rides and West Side Story parties! Such community-builders, Meridith and Judith.

 

I haven't seen Judith and Meridith in recent years, but I know that there are those who have been experiencing all of that love, friendship and warmth on the West Coast. I am mourning for Judith, for all who loved Meridith, and for the loss of such a powerful presence in the world. Here's picture of Meridith and me on the way to the OutWrite Conference in Copley Square in Boston in June 1995. Sally Bellerose was there, too, but I am pretty sure that Judith took the picture.

 

 Donations in Meridith Lawrence's memory may be made to the following:
Women's International league for peace and freedom
Black lives matter.
Power to live 
Sogorea Te' Land Trust

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Historical Fiction at Mendocino Coast Writing Conference

I am teaching Writing Historical Fiction at the Mendocino Coast Writing Conference this summer. Scholarship applications are open now.  Check out the amazing faculty and workshops  (I am particularly excited about Kij Johnson, whose stories I love.)  Come write with me in a beautiful place! 

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