The Poet of Tolstoy Park (Sonny Brewer)

There are shelves full of books available that seek to tell us, by example, by counterexample or even, if you wander to a particular section of the library, by instruction, about how to live. And many of them are quite worthwhile. There are very few books, as far as I know, that tell us how to die and I’m willing to bet that none do so with as much grace and inspiration as Sonny Brewer’s THE POET OF TOLSTOY PARK.

It is early 20th century Idaho and Henry Stuart is given a year or so to live. His doctor suggests he move somewhere warmer to ease his suffering, and he, somewhat randomly, chooses Fairhope, Alabama. If the name of the city sounds too good to be true, be assured that it’s a real place. Apparently, long-time NFL quarterback Philip Rivers wants to return there after he retires in order to coach high school football.

Once there, inspired by Tolstoy and others, he goes into the woods and attempts to live deliberately. An assortment of people find their way into his life and, well, I don’t want to spoil anything except to say that I can only hope that my final years are anywhere close to as graceful as his.


Given that I don’t know Brewer’s work, the closer I got to the end, the more nervous I became. To put it simply, I was worried that he was going to mess up the ending, but I was wrong. The ending is pitch perfect; it is what the story deserves. It makes me want to seek out another one of Brewer’s books.

One question remains for me, though. And I don’t mind sitting with it. If you’ve read the book – or when you read the book – please let me know what you think is in the shoe box. I’d love to discuss it with someone. I’d love to discuss the whole book with someone. In the meantime, in addition to finding another Brewer book, I’ll also be searching for some Tolstoy.

Charles Ellenbogen is the author of the teaching memoir, THIS ISN’T THE MOVIES: 25 YEARS IN THE CLASSROOM, and teaches high school English in Cleveland, Ohio. He lives in Shaker Heights, Ohio with Kirsten, his wife, Zoe, their daughter, Ezra, their son, Lincoln, their dog, and Chocolate Scales, their snake