How do you prepare for death? With bare feet and a head full of precepts, if you’re the protagonist of Brewer’s didactic first outing.
After learning he’s terminally ill with tuberculosis, the first thing Henry Stuart does is discard his boots. His sudden contact with the earth is restorative. And the 67-year-old retired professor will make many more changes to his life in Nampa, Idaho (the year is 1925). Strongly influenced by Tolstoy, he’ll give up his house and land to his two sons. He’ll move to Fairhope, Alabama, a “reform community” opposed to rampant capitalism. There, on cliffs above Mobile Bay, he will build a round hut out of concrete (Stuart did exist, and the hut still does; Fairhope is Brewer’s hometown), following a vision that comes to him in a dream about a bird’s nest and Black Elk. Henry’s ideas are a synthesis of Tolstoy, Thoreau, and the Oglala Sioux medicine man. He’s convinced he can overcome fear of death by moving from a material to a spiritual plane, while the challenge of manual work, done by himself alone, will be “soul-perfecting.” In fact, he’s a set of quirks and ideals who stops just short of being a fully realized fictional character. His moral evolution is the thing, and so his family relationships go unexplored. Does he even like the sons he left behind? To his kindly Alabama neighbors, he sometimes seems just crabby. Brewer’s account of the hut construction is plodding (Masonry 101), but he does enliven his austere tale with two hurricanes and a near-fatal moccasin attack. Then, in the midst of the second hurricane, Henry has a road-to-Damascus epiphany: He will not die anytime soon, but must reach out to others.
More pleasures here from the novel’s moral clarity than from those traditional sources, plot and character.