“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’etre. The Poet of Tolstoy Park is the unforgettable 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 sixty-seven, 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.
The Poet of Tolstoy Park is a moving and irresistible story, a guidebook of the mind and spirit that lays hold of the heart. Henry Stuart points the way through life’s puzzles for all of us, becoming in this timeless tale a character of such dimension that he seems more alive now than ever.
About the Author
SONNY BREWER owns Over the Transom Bookshop in Fairhope 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 acclaimed annual three-volume anthology of Southern writing, Stories from the Blue Moon Cafe.
Read an Excerpt
• ONE •
Henry walked out of the doctor’s office and the drumming rain that had begun to fall went straight through his thin white hair, wetting his head and sending a chill down his back. Instead of putting on his hat, he placed the flat of his palm on his forehead and stroked the dampness accruing there. He sat down on the edge of the porch, quickly soaking the seat of his pants.
He rubbed his hands together and massaged the pain in his knuckles, then lifted his left foot and took hold of the heel of his boot and tugged it off. He straightened his back, took a breath, and in a moment crossed his right leg over stiffly and removed the other boot. Henry decided, because it was his option to do so, that he would abandon his boots. He paired them up evenly there on the boards.
Henry could not remember when last he had walked barefoot in the rain, mud squishing up between his toes. He believed it was Black Elk, or maybe Chief Seattle, who had said that the man who always wears his moccasins thinks the earth is covered with leather. Henry looked at his boots and wondered how long they would sit before someone took them. They were good Wellingtons and not badly worn, and he thought someone would be surprised to find a pair of boots on the porch at Dr. Belton’s place.
Henry planted his palms on his knees, caressed the wet brown twill trousers, and from those points levered himself to standing. He would let his feet know that this piece of earth was covered with mud, and thought perhaps they’d enjoy knowing that.
He tilted his face downward and was lifting his rumpled and sweat-stained felt hat when he heard his name called and, looking up, saw a horse and wagon drawing near the plank sidewalk in front of which he stood. Twenty years earlier in Nampa, Idaho, the first automobile had been delivered on a flat train car. Now in 1925 the tables were turned and only a few stubborn sorts still went about in horse-drawn carriages or wagons. This driver was among them. He sat alone on the buckboard seat, the long leather reins drawn tight in his gloved hand, making to stop his dappled gray Appaloosa. With his left hand the driver pulled back hard on the brake shaft.
“Whoa! Whoa back there, Bo,” the driver said.
The horse slowed his walk, its hooves sucking at the muddy street, but did not come to a stop until the wagon was dead even with Henry. This side street was one of four remaining unoiled or unpaved streets in Nampa, and some of Dr. Belton’s patients said perhaps the dust and mud was unsanitary, but the doctor disagreed. He did not like automobiles himself, and he owned the entire block, so the town council took their pavement and their oiling elsewhere for the time being. That kept at least some of the cars away, and the smell of oil out of the air.
“How do, Brother Webb?” Henry nodded to the man in the wagon, then raised his arm, hat in hand, and slowly wiped the top of his head with his shirtsleeve, depositing his hat there before dropping his hand to his side. His arms hung straight, his fingers loose.
“Did you pray up this rain, Will?” Henry was making small talk, postponing for a moment at least what was coming. But the Reverend William Webb had been dealing with people of all stripes for forty years, and Henry knew this preacher’s practiced eye would discern that the news from the doctor was bad. Like as not, Henry’s two boys had made such a prediction to the preacher man. Both his sons went to this preacher’s church, Harvey, the oldest, a regular. We might as well go ahead and get on down to the quick on this one, Henry thought.
“Henry,” the preacher said, rain dripping from the brim of his hat, “Thomas and Harvey have been telling me something’s bad wrong with you. Said you’ve been coughing and spitting up blood and you were coming in to see the doctor this morning. I watched you go in there, and I’ve been lying in wait like a highwayman for you to come out. Now, I—”
“Dr. Belton said it’s consumption, Will,” Henry said evenly. “Tuberculosis. He’s given me a year to live. Maybe not that long. Maybe a little more.” Henry stood, like a patient man in line at a bank, his arms at his side. He was a tall man, just at six feet, and medium-built, his shoulders still square and his spine still straight. Nothing about him projected grave illness, and he could have passed for a man of fifty, though he was sixty-seven. His clear blue eyes locked on the dark eyes of the preacher, darker still under the soaked brim of his hat.
William Webb shook his head, then bent his face downward. When Will looked up, he said, “I am sorry, Henry. This is a hard one, my friend.” The preacher wrapped the reins around the brake, slid across the wet seat, taking hold of the seat back to help steady his rise. “If you’ll let me, I’ll pray with you, Henry. Just a brief word with the Lord.” A big redbone hound bellied out from underneath the porch, startling the horse into a quick forward step, snatching the wagon. The preacher lurched and fell back, sitting down hard on the wagon seat. “Aw, Bo, damn your hide!”
Henry smiled. “Keep your seat, Reverend.” He watched the old hound trot across the street, going diagonally toward the alley that would take him behind the Melton Hotel, and perhaps a scrap of bread raked off a breakfast plate. The morning fell darker, and there was a low roll of thunder toward the hills east of town, and the rain fell harder. Henry turned his collar up. “I’ll let you know when I need a prayer lifted on my behalf, though I do appreciate your intent, Brother Webb.”
“Can I at least give you a ride back out to your place? This muck’ll ruin your boots.” The preacher let his eyes travel slowly down to Henry’s long bare feet. “Well, that is, when you put your boots back on. I’ve got to go in that direction, Henry, and I’d not think a thing of carting you to your front gate.”
“But it’s to the Pearly Gates you truly want to cart me. I have known you for too long, Will. You’ll never give up. You would talk all the way and make half a dozen altar calls.”
“I expect there’d not be time for half a dozen entreaties mean- ingful enough to rescue that starving soul of yours.” Preacher Webb propped a booted foot on the buckboard’s dash, caught the wet and wilted brim of his hat and tilted it back a bit for a better look at Henry James Stuart. “I worry about you, Henry, staying away from the church like we’ve got out a quarantine sign. Both your sons come as often as we open the doors. Don’t you think Molly would want you in the church with her boys?”
Henry braced his shoulders and closed his hands, though not tight into fists. “Molly did want me to go to church. With her. And I went, glad to go for the pleasure it seemed to give to her. But, Will, Molly is dead three years now, and—”
“And you have not darkened the door of my church one time since she passed, Henry.”
“Nor shall I, Will. We don’t really have to talk about this again, do we?”
“But do you not fear for your soul now that you’ll soon face the Almighty?” The preacher sat straighter, still holding up the brim of his hat.
“My face has never turned away from God, nor my ear ever inclined away from his counsel. You do not stand between me and my creator, Will Webb. It seems a prideful thing to suggest, and a touch arrogant.”
Preacher Webb took his foot from the dash and banged it down on the puddled floorboard, leaning forward to unwrap the reins. “And you are the stubbornest man in all of Idaho, Henry. My prayer is that you get a chance to argue your name onto Heaven’s roll, for you could argue the horns off a goat.” The rain quickly eased and almost stopped, and both men looked briefly toward the sky, as if to find the cause of the lull.
“Since you have got it going this morning, Will, let me argue with you for half a minute,” Henry said, drawing his bushy white eyebrows together in a frown. “Let me tell you how I believe that all the names of all the people in all the ages are written forever on that roll you speak of. How I believe that when our Maker claims what is his at the birth of a child and duly records it in his Book of Life, that little one becomes a divine property that neither foe nor force nor deed can steal.”
Henry lifted his hands, a questioning gesture. “Can’t you get your preacher’s heart to believe that what was ever once God’s is always God’s? It’s simple to me. There is nothing that can oppose the creative force of the universe. There is nowhere to get to, Will, if you never truly left. It’s because you and others of your ilk cannot even approach such an idea that I have no need of what you’re selling at the churchhouse, Will.”
“This is your ‘Everybody Gets Back to Heaven’ sermon. I’ve heard it before, Henry.” The reverend held the reins one in each hand, and was bent forward slightly with his forearms resting on his heavy thighs. “Come on, Henry. What a load of bull. I don’t know how they graduated you from Mount Union. Must’ve been an off year for them in their divinity department to turn you loose among good Baptists.”
Henry shook his head, but smiled. He had first laid out his theology to Will Webb on one of their fishing afternoons down at a favorite spot on Lake Lowell. It was after Aldus Sansing, a man well known to Henry, had been cut down with a double-barreled shotgun during a robbery and had died without officially “coming to the Lord” on a Sunday morning. Aldus never went there. Not for weddings and not for funerals.
His murderer was soon caught, and while he waited in jail to be hanged, he found his salvation, presided over and attested to by Reverend Orlen Estes. A grammar-schooler, thought Henry, could see something wrong with the killer getting his writ to enter Heaven while a good man had been murdered and tossed to Hell.
Ruminating upon that, in a moment’s insight, Henry had come to believe that if indeed there was a “next step” after this trail is quit, then all and everyone is privileged to walk that walk. Henry believed he saw clearly the advance of all things. He knew that a boy who takes early to drinking and carousing is not left in some box marked 1907, but gets himself along to 1915 and a box labeled “Loving Husband/Good Father.” But then he might run off with the neighbor’s wife the next year. And that was that. And it did not matter a whit, for all manner of things would in time be set right.
And Henry was at ease with his belief, but Henry’s first son Harvey had told him to his face that he was hell-bound. Neither he nor his friend Will Webb could cotton to a simple line that all persons would perfect the soul awarded them, even if it takes eons. Neither could seem to comprehend the absence of a devil that could actually oppose and defeat the maker of the universe. For Henry, the debate was ended. And now, it seemed, he’d be the first of the three to discover the truth of his religion. And that was well enough for Henry, who in apprehending the mix of sadness and exasperation on Will’s face found his thoughts turning to Tolstoy. Henry had been read- ing and rereading the novels of Tolstoy since he was in his twenties, and had long studied his nonfiction. Henry knew that Tolstoy was a deeply spiritual man, and yet was excommunicated and therefore buried without the help of the Russian Orthodox Church. Some in Tolstoy’s church, certainly his family and friends, must have been nonplussed by his disdain for organized religion.
The Reverend William Webb slid back across the wagon’s board seat, making a swipe at the spot he’d just vacated. “Here, then. Put your boots back on, Henry, and hop up here and let me give you a ride home. Come on now, before this rain takes up again. I’ll not preach a word in the direction of your black heart.” The preacher gave an exaggerated wink. “While we’re riding you can tell me about this consumption, or what have you, that’s fool enough to think it can kill you.” Will paused, removed his wet right glove to accept the hand of his friend and help him onto the wagon seat, then said, “It’s not catching, I guess. Consumption, I mean.”
That got another smile out of Henry. He shook his head. “It’s not the contagious strain of the illness.” Henry motioned with his hand to the preacher. “I’ll walk, Will. And without my fine boots. It will be excellent practice for those long barefoot walks up in the clouds. But I do thank you for the kindness of your offer.”
“Now who is the arrogant one? Where do you come by the certainty that it’ll not be red-hot coals you’ll be treading upon, Henry? Down there!” And Will Webb gave a thumbs-down toward the ground. Both men fell into laughter for a brief moment until Henry gave a deep raspy cough and turned to take from his unbuttoned shirt pocket a clean fold of handkerchief and coughed into that, putting it into his trousers back pocket when normal breathing had come again to him. Unguarded, muscles in the preacher’s face now sagged downward around his eyes and mouth and the sadness was plain to see. “I am mighty sorry, Henry. Mighty sorry.” Will shifted both reins to his left hand and held his open right palm out toward his friend. “May the peace of the Lord be with you, Henry.”
Henry drew a finger to his hat. Will gestured a final time to the seat beside him. Henry shook his head no. Will nodded and slapped the reins. Bo pulled the wagon into the sloppy, gray-mudded street, and Henry saw Will draw himself down against the cold rain.
Henry spoke into the soft sigh of the morning. “And also with you, Brother Webb.”
Reading Group Guide
1. This is a ﬁctionalized account of a true story. How accurate do you think Brewer’s portrayal of Henry Stuart might be, and does this affect your enjoyment of the book?
2. What qualities do you most admire in Henry, and what do you think we can learn from his story?
3. What do you think cured Henry?
4. After outliving his diagnosis, why do you think Henry chose not to return to his sons in Idaho?
5. Does Henry Stuart remind you of anyone you know? Do you think a story like his could take place today?
6. Brother O’Neil says: “Books and writing are agents for the accumulation of ideas and your minds are overfull.” What do you think of this statement, and what do you think of Henry’s strategy to quiet his “overfull” mind?
7. Author Sonny Brewer is the editor of Stories from the Blue Moon Café, an anthology of Southern writing. What do you think makes a novel “Southern,” and do you consider The Poet of Tolstoy Park a Southern novel?
8. How would you characterize the female characters in this novel?
9. Henry believed that “no work is wasted,” that work, philosophically, is a means without regard to its end. What could be the value to a man of constructing a house of concrete if he might die before he ﬁnishes it?
10. What do you think motivates Henry to go barefoot? What do you think of the statement, “If all the hobnail boots were put away, wars would end”?
11. Do you think this book would make a good movie?
12. Do you wish the author had written more romance into the relationship between Henry and Kate? Why or why not?
13. What do you think is in the shoe box that Thomas gives Henry at the end of the book?
14. An osprey appears to Henry when he falls down in the creek. What do you think the osprey symbolizes?
15. What role did Black Elk play in Henry Stuart’s life?
16. John Lennon sang “Imagine” with lyrics that imagined people living at peace in a world with “no religion too.” Do you agree that would be a good idea? Henry did not go to church, but did he have “religion”?
17. When the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke exhorted readers to “be ahead of all parting” what did he mean, and how might this relate to The Poet of Tolstoy Park?
18. At the end of the book, the author fast-forwards the narrative about twenty years. If you were going to write of those “missing” years of Henry Stuart, what would your favorite scene be?
19. Robert Frost said, “Writing is as good as it is dramatic. Period.” Where’s the drama in The Poet of Tolstoy Park?
20. How would you characterize the author’s writing style?
21. If you could rename this book, what would you name it?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I don't even know how I obtained this book but it has become my favorite. I read it in one sitting and have recommended it to many people. a couple of book clubs have added it to their list because of my recommendation. It was a moving book for me. Entertaining and tearful. Loved it. It is the only book that I have read a second time.
I loved this book so much I went looking for the author's website and sent him a note. I figured doing so might serve a double purpose: 1) let the writer know his work was enjoyed, 2) cast a vote for the values that drive the story -- such as I see them. Here's what I had to say Sonny Brewer: Just wanted to say that 'The Poet of Tolstoy Park' has rendered me incapable of starting another book. I finished on Saturday and have since been unable to let myself be drawn away from Henry Stuart, Tolstoy Park, and Fairhope. 'The Confessions of Max Tivoli' sits on my bedside table, and though I'd been very eager to read it, I now find I haven't the will. I want to savor your book awhile longer. By my reckoning, such as its worth, 'The Poet of Tolstoy Park' is a thing of beauty, grace, and wisdom. And humor, too. In fact, I'm puzzled that the reviews I've read, both editorial and reader reviews, fail to mention the delightful humor. I'm even more puzzled, however, that I haven't read one review that mentions the 'community' theme. That we are all connected, and that in our acknowledgment of our connectedness, and in our service to one another, we can best live a good life and thus best die, seems to me the heart of the story. I suppose we all see in the world around us what we see in our heads, and I've just finished writing a novel in which community is a central theme, so it may be my unique perspective to see it as the heart of your book . . . But surely Henry's conviction that humankind's hope lies not in Christianity, nor any institutionalized religion or social philosophy, Tolstoy's included, but in our Christian treatment of one another, was not an insignificant bit of character detail. I digress. Thank you for the blessedly uplifting read. I've often said that reading Wendell Berry's novels and stories is like eating a bowl of the most delicious, nutrious soup ever cooked up. Early on in your book I decided that reading it was like eating a slice of fresh-and-warm-from-the-oven homemade wholegrain bread, healthy but also heavenly tasty, spread with good butter and drizzled with honey, just here and there so bites alternate between honeyed and honey-free. That notion stayed with me throughout, but it also felt a smidge short of the whole truth. Then I reached your passage about Henry's strawberry beds and I thought, 'That's it! This book is like a slice of wonderful bread (as described above) accompanied by fresh strawberries straight from the garden.' I even imagined eating these berries and bread (reading your book) while sitting on the side of one of Henry's raised beds, basking in the sun. That's what I had to say to Mr. Brewer. To readers I say, 'Buy this book and know that beauty and goodness are alive and well in this sweet old troubled world.'
An older "Thoreau" faces mortality. Sonny Brewer's book is a puzzle to me. It's a book which moves slowly and inexorably, yet most pleasurably towards its inevitable end. I was initially put off by all the minute detail, which seemed unnecessary, given the everyday nature of what was being described. Here's an example: "Henry was washing his breakfast bowl in a white porcelain-coated metal bucket ... Henry lifted the bowl from the water in the bucket and slung droplets from it onto the ground. He reached a small white cotton towel down from where it hung on a holly branch near the well, dried the bowl, and returned the towel. He took the clean spoon from his pants pocket and placed it inside the bowl and was taking steps toward the barn to put the dish away ..." There's a lot of this kind of picture-making detail in the book, but you kind of get used to it after a bit and fall willingly into the slow cadences and rhythms of a timeless tale about life, death, relationships. Henry Stuart knows he's dying. He just doesn't know when. And of course no one does, and therein lies the unifying theme, I think. It's not about how long we live or when we die, it's about how we spend our time while we're still here. At first Henry thinks he needs to be alone - and perhaps he does - but then he realizes that other people are important too, and ends up becoming an important and integral part of the Fairhope and Montrose community. I thought of Thoreau and Walden while reading this book, of course, but I also thought of the southern novelist, Reynolds Price, whose dignified and stately style Brewer's gentle story brings to mind. So yeah, I enjoyed the story. On a more irreverent note, I was kinda wishing, waaay in the back of my mind, that maybe ol' Henry and Kate (some thirty years younger)would get together a la "Murphy's Romance." (Remember James Garner and Sally Field?) But I suppose that woulda spoiled the dignified and artistic tone of the book. But who knows? Maybe Hollywood will add that twist by the time it gets to the screen. Great story, Sonny. You have a voice that deserves to find an audience.
I loved this book. It makes me want to visit Fairhope, Alabama.
Was very interesting and introspective
I loved the main character. Sonny Brewer's writing style is excellent.
Whether your struggle is with death and dying, family detachment, personal adventure and renewal - this book has all this and so much more. While its themes will likely resonate primarily with those of us in mid-life, there is wisdom and a wonderful reading experience here for anyone. You owe it to yourself to read this gem of a book.