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Susan Stinson
Spider in a Tree
Small Beer Press
US Trade Paperback First Edition
ISBN 978-1-618-73069-5
Publication Date: 10-14-2013
320 Pages; $16
Date Reviewed: 12-01-2013
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2013

Index:  General Fiction  Fantasy  

It's easy to dismiss what we believe to be the extremes, to chalk them up as anomalies in an otherwise orderly universe. But what we see as extreme never believes itself to be so. From within, the most extreme behaviors and beliefs seem perfectly reasonable. Jonathan Edwards, the 18th century Calvinist preacher certainly thought himself right and proper, even as he made himself the benchmark for the extremities of Christian doctrine.

With 'Spider in a Tree,' Susan Stinson takes us inside the mind of Jonathan Edwards, and those around him; his wife, Sarah, a slave, Leah and more. Stinson's exemplary empathy towards her characters brings a delicate but powerful interior life to this intense novel. The subtle threads that connect them, the powerful beliefs that drove them, the internal conflicts that absolute power creates are orchestrated into a tidal surge of story. 'Spider in a Tree' spins a very clever web.

Edwards is most famous for his sermon titled "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," the inception point for the most extreme beliefs that haunt us even to this day. But the man who crafted these words was not a simple zealot, as any examination of his work will quickly reveal. As the centerpiece of 'Spider in a Tree,' Edwards proves to be a much more twisty character than we might have imagined.

Stinson's vision of Edwards is as powerful and commanding as his words, which are well worth reading, and found in well-selected excepts in the text. He was a man who saw the Lord God permeating every nook and cranny of the world; and a slaveholder as well. In a sense, he did have a proto-scientific understanding of the world. The contradiction is shattering, but Stinson perfectly captures our ability, so prevalent in the most intelligent humans, to hold contradictory beliefs.

Stinson has also done the research to bring the personal quirks of the man to life as well; we see him writing sermons in a tree and later are treated to the vision of a spider of the eight-legged variety. Stinson brings to life both Edwards' wife and his slave, and the clash of inner lives and visions drives the plotting of the novel. Edwards was a powerful man in his community, and as with any man of power, he was not necessarily well-liked.

'Spider in a Tree' captures the last gasp of a pre-science world, and builds that world exquisitely. Edwards and his flock saw the world as suffused with God, and imbued with meaning that was not obvious. Stinson's vision of an early American community living in what to our understanding, is a sort of "magic realism" manages to be both beautifully written and feels historically correct. She understands that the past is a different country, not just the present without electricity.

Ultimately, 'Spider in a Tree' is a lesson in what not to expect. Stinson eludes the clichés usually associated with religious extremism to peel away the humans underneath. We speak of a loving God, who asks us to embark upon a deadly war. We most easily see the sins in others that we are ourselves guilty of. Every ambition to perfect ourselves has a very human cost. As we reach for what we decide is the divine, we reveal our most fragile human frailties. Words cannot capture us; but we in all our human hubris, are quite inclined to capture words.

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