Field Notes by novelist Christopher Brown is a wonderful every week, rich with observations and insights from wandering the urban edgelands of Austin, Texas. I loved this May Day issue, which includes one of my favorite true stories from seventeenth century New England: the story of Thomas Morton and his wild Maypole party that got his whole settlement shut down. It's a great moment to use as a departure to imagine what New England would have been like if they had stayed. Plus, a turte laying her eggs! And all! Field Notes is very much worth subscribing to -- I wouldn't miss a Sunday.
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?
The deadline to apply to do research for a novel, play, poetry, visual art, dance, or other creative work at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, MA is coming up on October 5, 2018. American Antiquarian Society Artist Fellowships are fantastic. I had one a couple years ago in support of the historical novel I am working on now, and couldn't believe the depth of their holdings and the generous support of their staff. It was like having a brilliant, helpful research staff and access to incredible holdings. There is a stipend and a housing option as well, complete with a room set up to be accessible for people with mobility disabilities, which is where I stayed.
Here is a link to posts by and about me on the Massachusetts Humanities blog, The Public Humanist. Topics include teaching fiction writing, reading Henry James, fiction as misdirection, and the 18th century theologian as slave-owner.