Summary and book reviews of The Poet of Tolstoy Park by Sonny Brewer

The Poet of Tolstoy Park

by Sonny Brewer

The Poet of Tolstoy Park
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2005, 272 pages
    Paperback:
    Mar 2006, 288 pages

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Book Summary

A moving and irresistible book based on the true story of Henry Stuart who, given less than a year to live, moved to Alabama, discarded his boots and built a round hut that he lived in for the next twenty years.

"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.

Excerpt
The Poet of Tolstoy Park

After the heyoka ceremony I came to live here where I am now between Wounded Knee Creek and Grass Creek. Others came too and we made these little gray houses of logs that you see, and they are square. It is a bad way to live, for there can be no power in a square.

"You have noticed that everything an Indian does is in a circle. And that is because the Power of the World always works in a circle, and everything tries to be round…

"The sky is round and I have heard that the earth is round like a ball. And so are all the stars. The wind in its greatest power whirls.

"Birds make their nests in a circle, for theirs is the same religion as ours.

"But the Waischus [white men] have put us in these square boxes. Our power is gone and we are dying, for the Power is not in us any more."

Black Elk, Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux



Chapter One

Henry walked out of the doctor's office and the drumming rain that had begun to fall went ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
    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?

  1. What qualities do you most admire in Henry, and what do you think we can learn from his story?

  2. What do you think cured Henry?

  3. After outliving his diagnosis, why do you think Henry chose not to return to his sons in Idaho?

  4. Does Henry Stuart remind you of anyone you know? Do you think a story like his could take place today?

  5. 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 ...
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Reviews

Media Reviews

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.

Library Journal - Beth E. Andersen

Starred review. Brewer offers a gloriously imagined vision of one resourceful life. 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. A powerful prayer to a less complicated way of being in the world, this book is highly recommended.

Kirkus Reviews

More pleasures here from the novel's moral clarity than from those traditional sources, plot and character.

Author Blurb Rick Bragg - Pulitzer Prize–winning author of All Over but the Shoutin'
Sonny Brewer writes the way people think and talk, if, of course, those people are poets. . . . Here, you smell the salt of the bay and the blood of the fish and the wet in the skinny pines. . . . This book wraps its arms around you, rubs its face against yours with a stubbled cheek, and refuses to let you go.

Author Blurb Pat Conroy, author of My Losing Season
The Poet of Tolstoy Park is one of those unique and wonderful books that sings a hymn of praise to the philosophical and spiritual part of daily life.

Author Blurb Winston Groom, author of Forrest Gump
Without literary pretense and in good back porch storytelling fashion, Sonny Brewer stands his characters up and turns them around so you know them front and back.

Author Blurb Bev Marshall, author of Walking Through Shadows and Right as Rain
An intoxicating and loving tribute to an extraordinary man, Henry James Stuart, whose life story is one of the most fascinating adventures I have ever read. . . . Written in language both lush and luminous, Sonny Brewer's debut novel is sustenance for both the mind and the soul. I believe that this novel is destined to become a literary treasure, and Brewer is destined to become a major voice in American literature.

Author Blurb Robert Morgan, author of Gap Creek and This Rock
A celebration of essential simplicity and the dignity of work. Sonny Brewer has given us a story of exploration and discovery, of the wisdom of plainness, of living in touch with each approaching and passing moment. You will not want to put it down.

Author Blurb William Gay, author of Provinces of Night
With prose that mirrors the grace of his protagonist, Brewer seamlessly merges time and place with the interior landscape of the heart.

Reader Reviews

Kathy Guidroz

More than wonderful
My life has been a spiritual journey thus far so when I met Sonny Brewer in the parking lot of my office, I had no idea his book and meeting him would be added unto my life in such a precious manner. This book is based on real life. Truth. Sonny ...   Read More

Walter H. Klaus

A-hole as compared to an Eccentric
The difference between an eccentric and an a-hole is education. Think about how Stuart treated his friend and those who wanted to befriend him, pretty bad, but since he was a former professor they attributed his personality to that of an eccentric.

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Beyond the Book

If you live in or around Fairhope, Alabama ('a dozen miles as the laughing gull would fly across the bay from the port city of Mobile') you might be lucky enough to know Sonny Brewer, the owner of the Over The Transom Bookstore in Fairhope.  

The Poet of Tolstoy Park is his first novel,  A Sound Like Thunder will be published in August and he's currently working on the third volume of his Fairhope Trilogy: The Tumble Inn and Sit Down Café.

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