The Poet of Tolstoy Park. Ballantine Books, 2005; $21.95; 274 pages.
FROM THE DUST JACKET: "The more you transform your life from the material to the spiritual domain, the less you become afraid of death." Leo Tolstoy spoke these words, and they became Henry Stuart's raison d'être. The Poet of Tolstoy Park is the novel based on the true story of Henry Stuart's life, which was reclaimed from his doctor's belief that he would not live another year.
Henry responds to the news by slogging home barefoot in the rain. It's 1925. The place: Canyon County, Idaho. Henry is 67, a retired professor and a widower who has been told a warmer climate would make the end more tolerable. San Diego would be a good choice.
Instead, Henry chose Fairhope, Alabama, a town with utopian ideals and a haven for strong-minded individualists. Upton Sinclair, Sherwood Anderson, and Clarence Darrow were among its inhabitants. Henry bought his own ten acres of piney woods outside Fairhope. Before dying, underscored by the writings of his beloved Tolstoy, Henry could begin to "perfect the soul awarded him" and rest in the faith that he, and all people, would succeed, "even if it took eons." Human existence, Henry believed, continues in a perfect circle unmarred by flaws of personality, irrespective of blood and possessions and rank, and separate from organized religion. In Alabama, until his final breath, he would chase these high ideas.
But first, Henry had to answer up for leaving Idaho. Henry's dearest friend and intellectual sparring partner, Pastor Will Webb, and Henry's two adult sons, Thomas and Harvey, were baffled and angry that he would abandon them and move to the Deep South, living in a barn there while he built a round house of handmade concrete blocks. His new neighbors were perplexed by his eccentric behavior as well. On the coldest day of winter he was barefoot, a philosopher and poet with ideas and words to share with anyone who would listen. And, mysteriously, his "last few months" became years. He had gone looking for a place to learn lessons in dying and studiously advanced to claim a vigorous new life.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
From Publishers Weekly: A dying man's decision to move from Idaho to Alabama becomes a quixotic spiritual journey in Brewer's ruminative, idiosyncratic first novel, based on a true story. In 1925, widowed Henry Stuart learns that he has tuberculosis and will probably be dead within a year. Stuart's initial reaction is optimistic resignation, as he regards his illness as a final philosophical journey of reconciliation, one that sends him back through the writings of his beloved Tolstoy and other literary and spiritual figures to find solace and comfort.
From Booklist: Fans of quiet, philosophical novels will find much to enjoy in Henry's musings and revelations.
From Library Journal: Brewer brings honor to this real-life, little-known eccentric from whom we could learn a great deal.... It will not escape those who fall in love with this beautiful novel that Stuart's cement beehive stands today in its original location, which is now a parking lot.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Sonny Brewer owns Over the Transom Bookshop in Fairhope, Alabama, and is board chairman of the nonprofit Fairhope Center for the Writing Arts. He is the former editor in chief of Mobile Bay Monthly; he also published and edited Eastern Shore Quarterly magazine, edited Red Bluff Review, and was founding associate editor of the weekly West Alabama Gazette. Brewer is the editor of the annual three-volume anthology of Southern writing, Stories from the Blue Moon Cafe.
A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR: "Born in Alabama in my grandmother's house in 1949," Sonny Brewer said on the day that we talked, "and pretty quickly taken away by a father who was alternately in the Air Force and a truck driver. I started first grade in Alabama but finished the year in Kentucky and started the second grade in Fort Wayne, Indiana. That kind of a pillar-to-post experience as a boy."
"Did your family read?"
"No, as a matter of fact, my sister called me exclaiming that she saw my book in the Sam's Club, and she bought ten copies. But she has not read it. My mother doesn't read and my brother doesn't, and that's okay. That's the world in which they live. Which is not to say that they have never read. But they are not avid readers -- no."
"How'd you come to reading?"
"When I was eight or nine, my great-grandfather died. Somebody needed to stay with my great-grandmother. I don't remember if I was chosen for that or volunteered. But when I would get off the school bus each day, I would walk the path down across the hill and up the hollow to my great-grandmother's house, and there was nothing to do there. There were no other kids to play with. I was there with my old grandma, and my brother and sister were left behind, and my great-grandmother didn't talk much, and she had a lot of books.
"I began taking the books down and reading until it got good and dark and sleepy time, and that's where it started -- reading those books for some few months while my great-grandmother was still alive. I remember reading Charlotte's Web and being completely spirited away from Lamar County, Alabama, and taken to a world of fantasy and imagination, and Shane, the Dog of the North."
"I wonder why she happened to have those titles."
"Her son, my great-uncle, is a Harvard-trained divinity student who's now in his middle 80s but who was an avid reader and left these books behind. So my Uncle Jay, who has also read The Poet of Tolstoy Park and sent me a nice long e-mail about it, was an avid reader as a young boy and left Alabama and went up to the schools in the Northeast and got a good education and helped me on my road to a good education by leaving behind those books at his mama's house there."