SPIDER IN A TREE is a revelation. Susan Stinson has wrought something wondrous in this book about the spiritual tribulations of a community of New England Calvinists. She brings their world to pulsing, sensuous life, entering as intimately into the mind of Jonathan Edwards, the original fire and brimstone preacher, as she does into the mind of Leah, who worked as his slave. Like Edwards, Stinson reads the natural world as well as Scripture, searching for meaning. But instead of the portents of an angry god, what she finds there is something numinous, complicated, and radiantly human.

Alison Bechdel, Fun Home

With dazzling poetic prose, Susan Stinson conjures the sensibility of a world three hundred years distant from our own. She captures the drama of heart and the idiom of spirit in 18th century New England. Like a great actor, Stinson disappears into every unique character she portrays and thus offers up the range of our humanity. (And then there are the quivering June bugs and dancing spiders!) She weaves the contradictions, blessings, and revelations into a vibrant, compelling tale of faith, freedom, and slavery in an elusive godís marvelous creation.

Andrea Hairston, Redwood and Wildfire

Spider In a Tree


Spider in a Tree
Prologue

In Northampton, where, long after his time, daughter Mary would worship on a chair outside the sanctuary so she wouldn't have to join the congregation (she took a boat across the river to Hadley for communion), they say that the Reverend Mr. Edwards wrote his sermons in a tree. He would climb the big elm in front of his house by boards nailed to the trunk and dangle his long, skinny legs off a limb.

People peered up at him through leaves that sifted light, which, he had taught them, was akin to sifting God. Even in the tree, he was aloof and somber, but passersby craned their necks to enjoy the spectacle of him in his Geneva collar and second best wig, writing furiously against a smooth place worn clean of bark. His inkpot was wedged in a knot, and when his elbow jostled branches, great arches of leaves shook.

Jonathan Edwards ate from pewter plates, not wooden trenchers, which did not go unnoticed in the town. He was useless with an auger and his wife was better than he was on one end of a two man saw, but most people who passed by the house on King Street had felt the slam of his sermons truing their souls. A yeoman like Mr. Root, driving by in his wagon, might think of a pumpkin gone soft on the ground after a frost and imagine reaching through the wet skin for a fistful of seedy pulp to fling at his minister (perched so oddly and conspicuously on the limb) as at a criminal in the pillory. He might have the thought, but he would know it to be Satan whispering in his ear. He would tip his hat and drive on. Others, more docile or reverent, would stop and reach up to give Mr. Edwards plums, cups of chocolate and prayer bids written on scraps for him to read aloud from the pulpit. He would lower a bucket on a rope to receive the gifts, but came down for those in need of counsel. They would retire to his study, another place where he wrote long days and into the night.

One breezy day, he was working in the tree, writing in a booklet made from scrap paper. He was only half conscious of reading fragments of old prayer bids on the backs as he turned the pages.

Thos Wells and his Wife Desire Thanks may be given to God In the Congregation for his Goodness to her in Childbed in making her the Living Mother of a Living Child.

As he dipped his quill into the ink pot, a red ant reached the knee buckle of one leg of his breeches. Mr. Edwards brushed it away.

The widow Southwill Being Sik of a Feavour desires the Prayers of the Congregation.

A translucent yellow spider with light brown stripes rushed up the broadcloth of Mr. Edwards's shirt as if he were a peak to be conquered. As it neared his collar, he took up his pages and knocked it away.

The spider landed on the ground, where it balled up and became almost invisible, a tuft of earth in the grass. After a time, it climbed the underside of one blade to the very tip and froze there, vibrating in the faint breeze. Mr. Edwards was looking in the other direction, upwards, as verses from Genesis rose in his mind. Suddenly, the spider lifted its abdomen and spun off to come toward him again, crossing a scraped root to begin to climb the tree.

Mr. Lyman and his wife desire Prayers for their negro tht is dangriusly sick.

It moved very quickly over the lichen-covered bark to a mossy cleft strung with strands of web, flecks of seed pods and small wings. It stopped on a tiny shelf of bark, went flat, then headed farther up into the folds, crevasses and smooth places where the tree had been skinned by fire.

The spider skimmed higher, passing the preacher without attracting his notice. It jumped and crossed a gap of sky left by broken limbs, leaving a thread behind it. Still looking up, Mr. Edwards witnessed a darting and tugging in the air.

Samu Wright & his wife Desire the prayers of this Congregation that god wood sanktifie his Holy & aflicting hand To them in Taking a way of thire Son Samu Wright by Death Thay Desir prayers that god wood fit and prepare them for thire grate and last Change.

Mr. Edwards looked down at the blank side of the next page and began filling it again, unhearing and intent on his struggle to bring shadows into language while the spider preached a silent sermon from the web in the tree:

Whatever your God would say of me, I am not damned. I did not turn to salt. Maybe thatís because you never looked back to crack me into tiny crystals like Lotís wife. Itís all dissolving in water, salt water, the blue part of the worldís eye, the planet looking back at God, who blinks.

You need me more than youíve ever admitted. Iím still with you. I didnít perish. I didnít burn, although God dangled me over the fiery pit as you knew he would. He dangled me over the fire, but you observed spiders carefully, once. Didnít you know that I would sail out of his hand as if taking great pleasure in the motion of my escape, spinning out trails behind me lighter than air might be? I am a hunter, and I ate as I went. God was disappointed, of course, but he wasnít the least bit surprised.

No birds or bats ate me, no toads, frogs, no reptiles of any kind, no tree limbs cracked and smashed me, no near stone fell. You were right: at the end of my life I was swept on an insistent, crowded current of air with all of the other insects to the sky above the sea. We came disguised in clouds and we fell, I fell. You were right about all that, too. I fell into the water; light, brittle bodies dimpled the surfaces of waves all around me. I was washed over, lost my breath and disintegrated, but I didnít die. God wasnít chasing me, he was busy burning sticks, watching the tips heat and color, wondering how long he dared to let the flame go before he ground it out in his box of sand. I entered the deeps as something very heavy and very small. I sank without reason, I sank with abandon, I went down, losing everything but motion, gravity, density Ė my ability, still, to fall. I had no legs by then, no chance of swimming, no dream of correcting the course, no course at all. I was low, far under the roots and depths of everything I knew. Lost to God, although, of course, he could have found me if he hadnít been still playing in the fire, tilting dripping candles over his hand to see if it would burn. I was falling and he was waving his fingers in the air to cool, slipping perfect wax impressions from the tips.

What happened then was that I tried to take a breath. No lungs. I landed.

I fell, but I didnít burn.


Slowly, Mr. Edwards became aware of a sound like many fingers rubbing together. He looked up at the rustling dome of leaves and saw meaning in it. Wind was a shadow of spirit. The world was as full of images of divine things as a language was full of words, but he found spiders hard to read. They were sagacious and hard-working, taking flights on glistening strings, but would devour each other like devils after the day of judgment if they were trapped and shut up without any flies.

He took a note on the shape of the web. A dense scattering of gnats rose around him like spray from the great rippling waves of branches.