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Mindful Reader

The Mindful Reader: A wonderful read about Jonathan Edwards and the Great Awakening

  • Susan Stinson, who has written a novel about the life of Jonathan Edwards called "Spider in a Tree", stands near a display of Edwards items Thursday, Oct. 3, at Forbes Library, where she is writer in residence. <br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    Susan Stinson, who has written a novel about the life of Jonathan Edwards called "Spider in a Tree", stands near a display of Edwards items Thursday, Oct. 3, at Forbes Library, where she is writer in residence.
    JERREY ROBERTS

  •  Massachusetts author Susan Stinson’s Spider in a Tree: a Novel of the First Great Awakening surprised me. I knew the basic history of the period, including a bit about Jonathan Edwards, and frankly, thought it dull. But Stinson takes readers into Edwa

    Massachusetts author Susan Stinson’s Spider in a Tree: a Novel of the First Great Awakening surprised me. I knew the basic history of the period, including a bit about Jonathan Edwards, and frankly, thought it dull. But Stinson takes readers into Edwa

  •  Massachusetts author Susan Stinson’s Spider in a Tree: a Novel of the First Great Awakening surprised me. I knew the basic history of the period, including a bit about Jonathan Edwards, and frankly, thought it dull. But Stinson takes readers into Edwa

    Massachusetts author Susan Stinson’s Spider in a Tree: a Novel of the First Great Awakening surprised me. I knew the basic history of the period, including a bit about Jonathan Edwards, and frankly, thought it dull. But Stinson takes readers into Edwa

  •  Susan Stinson, who has written a novel about the life of Jonathan Edwards called “Spider in a Tree,” stands near a display of Edwards items at Forbes Library in Northampton, Mass.,, where she is writer in residence.

    Susan Stinson, who has written a novel about the life of Jonathan Edwards called “Spider in a Tree,” stands near a display of Edwards items at Forbes Library in Northampton, Mass.,, where she is writer in residence.

  • Susan Stinson, who has written a novel about the life of Jonathan Edwards called "Spider in a Tree", stands near a display of Edwards items Thursday, Oct. 3, at Forbes Library, where she is writer in residence. <br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  •  Massachusetts author Susan Stinson’s Spider in a Tree: a Novel of the First Great Awakening surprised me. I knew the basic history of the period, including a bit about Jonathan Edwards, and frankly, thought it dull. But Stinson takes readers into Edwa
  •  Massachusetts author Susan Stinson’s Spider in a Tree: a Novel of the First Great Awakening surprised me. I knew the basic history of the period, including a bit about Jonathan Edwards, and frankly, thought it dull. But Stinson takes readers into Edwa
  •  Susan Stinson, who has written a novel about the life of Jonathan Edwards called “Spider in a Tree,” stands near a display of Edwards items at Forbes Library in Northampton, Mass.,, where she is writer in residence.

Massachusetts author Susan Stinson’s Spider in a Tree: a Novel of the First Great Awakening surprised me. I knew the basic history of the period, including a bit about Jonathan Edwards, and frankly, thought it dull. But Stinson takes readers into Edwards’s home, into the lives of his family, their slaves, neighbors, relatives, and yes, even the spiders and insects of colonial Northampton, Mass. Suffering and joy, religious ecstasy and secular sorrow, the conflict between formal theology and individual conscience all make vivid fodder for Stinson’s story, which follows Edwards’s trajectory from 1731, during the religious revival that gripped New England, to 1750, when his congregation dismissed him.

She opens with Edwards sitting in “the big elm in front of his house. . . . People peered up at him through leaves that sifted light, which, he had taught them, was akin to sifting God. . . . 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 his sermons hammering at their souls.”

Stinson’s writing is clear, dynamic and full of vivid details that evoke early American life. Supporting characters add richness and depth to the story. Through them, we see Jonathan Edwards not only as a minister, but a man. Joseph and Elisha, Edwards’s young cousins, grow up in the shadow of their father’s suicide, which their mother believes Edwards caused with his fervent preaching. Sarah, Edwards’s wife, is a skilled herbalist, has ecstatic spiritual visions, bears 11 children and tries to smooth townspeople’s feelings when her husband stirs them up. Leah, the Edwards’s slave, experiences a personal religious awakening and wonders how people of faith can justify owning other people.

As these stories and others weave through Jonathan Edwards’s accomplishments and setbacks, readers explore the ideas and ideals, conflicts and controversies the characters face. And the big questions Edwards’s preaching raised in a world both very different and very similar to our own, where people’s emotions, resentments, secrets and aspirations color their actions. A fascinating trip back in time and through the human spirit, a story of longing, seeking, loving and struggling that seemed to me as engaging and fresh as anything you might read about a contemporary small town.

For fans of true crime

“The lies you wanted to hear were the easiest ones to tell,” says Lucy to Matt in Lies You Wanted to Hear, Massachusetts author James Whitfield Thomson’s debut novel. In this scene, Lucy and Matt are seeing each other again for the first time 17 years after Matt disappeared with their children. The novel opens with Lucy reflecting on nearly seven years without her family, and then explains what happened. Matt and Lucy are not terribly likeable characters, but Thomson makes them very real. It’s interesting to consider how far people will go in the name of love, and what an enormous claim parenthood makes on the human psyche. Inspired by a newspaper article about a Boston man whose daughters were glad he’d kidnapped them 20 years earlier, this novel should appeal to fans of true crime as well as fiction.

A non-adult book for adults

Monitor Board of Contributors writer Justine “Mel” Graykin wrote her novel Archimedes Nesselrode “for adults who are weary of adult books.” When working at the Philbrick-James Library in Deerfield, Graykin notes, patrons ask her for “something uplifting, in between all the heavy, literary, adult fare.” Her playful title character is an artist whose “creations” appear to be alive, and who shares his home with a basilisk guard, a matronly heron, mischievous marmosets, a bishop who lives in a teapot and many other whimsical creatures. When Nesselrode’s manager, Frank Shekle, interviews housekeepers, he warns them about his client’s eccentricity. Ms. Vivian Mare is undaunted. The household runs smoothly in her capable hands until the full moon, when Nesselrode’s behavior prompts a change in their relationship. By the end of the book, readers learn why Archimedes Nesselrode hasn’t left his house in 10 years, how he creates, what the downsides of his mysterious talents are, and what the future holds for Ms. Mare and her employer.

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