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The Poet of Tolstoy Park: A Novel - Hardcover

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9780345476319: The Poet of Tolstoy Park: A Novel
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“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.

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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.
Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
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 n...

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  • PublisherBallantine Books
  • Publication date2005
  • ISBN 10 034547631X
  • ISBN 13 9780345476319
  • BindingHardcover
  • Edition number1
  • Number of pages272
  • Rating
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    ( 835 ratings by Goodreads )

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