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Book Club Discussion Questions: Spider in a Tree

Questions for Discussion
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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Library as Writing Prompt

A fat, middle-aged white woman wearing black with brown hair in a bun stands on her toes on a lit glass floor between shelves of books, reaching for a book on a high shelf.
Susan Stinson in the Stacks. Photo by Jeep Wheat. 



[This essay originally appeared as part of a series about being Writer in Residence at Forbes Library in Northampton, MA on LIBRARYASINCUBATORPROJECT on Mar 6, 2014. I am posting it now as I am getting ready to stop facilitating a writing room at Forbes, which I have run for nine years.  I've put a link at the end of this post so that you can find the essay as it was originally published online or read the whole series. SS]

by Susan Stinson


Prompt:  This morning, turn gently to the story. Enter into language in a way that makes room for you to follow subtle, insistent currents.  There is a tension here between perceiving, receiving, remembering and making.  Work those tensions until they yield something the work needs.

Every Wednesday and Saturday morning, I bring three new writing prompts written by hand on index cards to the Writing Room at the library.  Most mornings, I write them before breakfast, at the kitchen table or sitting cross-legged in bed.  When I get to the Watson Room, I spread the cards out on the long, beautiful table, near the foot, where the young writer who I know copies them in her notebook every week can easily reach them.  Some of the writers pick them up every time they come, and some never use them at all, but writing them is a pleasure for me.  They keep me in conversation with the experience of writing as I know it, live it, and witness it.  It is like meditating on brushes with other minds.  Maybe writing is always like that.  Maybe coming to the library is, too.

Prompt: Perhaps you've been deep in sorrows, frustrations, dreams, or all three.  Don't fight them this morning, but ride the force of them into your work.  Be as small as you are and let the feelings and experiences be as big as they are. This will connect with your work, if you let it. "Be not afeard, the isle is full of noises…" (That's a line from The Tempest, William Shakespeare.)

When Forbes library is about to close, a librarian walks among the patrons, ringing a long-handled brass bell.  The librarians have a calm, quiet air about them at this task, and the sound is beautiful.   It is the end of the day, which is both loss and release.  Sometimes it signals another a good day of work, done.   Sometimes, I leave knowing more about what I'd like to write tomorrow.

Prompt: It's the rhythm, the groove, cultivation of a new/renewed habit. Turn to the writing as if you're used to doing it. Turn with relaxed, dogged patience and a capacity to be surprised. The work is the thing, today. Do the work. 
When I first started writing this series of posts about being Writer in Residence at Forbes for the Library as Incubator Project, my most recent novel, which I worked on for ten years with lots of help from Forbes, had been out for less than a week.  Today, as I drafted this post in the Writing Room, three writers were there for the first time, one faithful participant was celebrating nearing the end of a book project, and we all bent over the writing together, whether working in the same room or throughout the building.  When I started as Writer in Residence at Forbes, I was feeling a bit isolated and discouraged about the prospects of Spider in a Tree ever being published.   Today, I feel part of a beautiful community of people who use to the library to make, research, gather, serve, reflect, play, grieve, write, read, and dream.  A friend just posted a picture of a book wrapped up in plain brown paper for a Blind Date with A Book at the Palmer Public library, with the following description: "Famous eighteenth-century theologian seeks audience for fiery sermons and inner turmoil in Northampton, Massachusetts. Members of my household with other perspectives encouraged to reply.  Must love (rhetorical) arachnids and local history!"  This is clearly my book about Jonathan Edwards and company.  I am thrilled, almost to the point of tears.  Creative, playful, engaged librarians all over the country give such lovely moments to library patrons over and over again.  What could be better for me– as a writer, a reader, a participant in my community and as a human being– than that?  What could be richer than working to help make more of those connections for other writers and readers?

Just now, when I got up for a drink of water, I ran into Elise Bernier-Feeley, the Special Collections librarian, who was marveling over a nineteenth century newspaper article about turkeys in the snow.  (It was good, but I won't give it away.)  She told me that she'd go try to find a book she knows that includes a great section on seventeenth century barrel-making, which I need for my next novel.  When I finish this, I'm going to go out into the welcome, warm February day and sit for a minute or two on the bench beside the library with my feet on the doorstep from the house that Jonathan and Sarah Edwards lived in on King Street.  I like having my feet on something old, ordinary and useful for a while.  I like how Forbes honors the histor(ies) of its community while throwing its very heavy doors open to all kinds of creation.  The library is itself is a prompt: to write, to read, to make, to work to stay open to ideas, people, and aesthetic experiences.   I love thinking about libraries all over the country doing that within and among their own communities, and what fantastic art is coming from that for all of us.

Want More?
·       Check out what Forbes Library is up to on Facebook and by following @ForbesLibrary on Twitter.
·       Learn more about Susan and her work by visiting her website and following @susanstinson on Twitter.


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Library Writer in Residence Posts at Library as Incubator Project

In 2013/14, I wrote a series of blog posts for the Library as Incubator Project website.  They were all about the experience of being Writer in Residence at my local public library, Forbes Library.  They were intended to encourage other public libraries to develop writer in residence programs. 


The Writer in Residence program at Forbes Library is still going strong. 



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