Sunday, May 13, 2012

REVIEW: Blue Asylum by Kathy Hepinstall

Synopsis (from Amazon): Amid the mayhem of the Civil War, Virginia plantation wife Iris Dunleavy is put on trial and convicted of madness. It is the only reasonable explanation the court can see for her willful behavior, so she is sent away to Sanibel Asylum to be restored to a good, compliant woman. Iris knows, though, that her husband is the true criminal; she is no lunatic, only guilty of disagreeing with him on notions of justice, cruelty, and property.
On this remote Florida island, cut off by swamps and seas and military blockades, Iris meets a wonderful collection of residents--some seemingly sane, some wrongly convinced they are crazy, some charmingly odd, some dangerously unstable. Which of these is Ambrose Weller, the war-haunted Confederate soldier whose memories terrorize him into wild fits that can only be calmed by the color blue, but whose gentleness and dark eyes beckon to Iris. The institution calls itself modern, but Iris is skeptical of its methods, particularly the dreaded "water treatment." She must escape, but she has found new hope and love with Ambrose. Can she take him with her? If they make it out, will the war have left anything for them to make a life from, back home?

My Thoughts: For a woman living around the time of the Civil War, there can't be too many fates worse than your husband having you declared insane (because you disagree with his treatment of slaves) and thrown in an insane asylum with a cast of characters that show by their actions that they really need to be there.  This is what happens to Iris Dunleavy though and we meet her as she is disembarking from a ship that has taken her to the island asylum of Sanibel.  It is the hope of the asylum doctor that he can return her to the nice subservient wife she once was and send her home to her husband.  The problem is that even though she is surrounded by people who are genuinely mentally ill, Iris knows she is not and her stubborn refusal to take direction from the priggish doctor soon earns her his ire and that of the heartless ward matron.

Once Iris realizes her stay on the island will not be short she seeks the company of Ambrose Weller, a Confederate soldier deeply troubled by his war experiences.  The friendship soon progresses into something more and Iris realizes she must escape or be stuck on the island indefinitely.  But can she really leave now that she has found in Ambrose the love she has been lacking?

Kathy Hepinstall manages to pack a lot of story into this little novel.  I loved Iris and her feisty refusal to be treated when she is not ill.  I actually liked all the characters considerably-even the doctor who had me wondering at times if he fished his degree out of a cracker jack box.  In addition to the story of Iris and Ambrose's time at the institution in the present, we get the story of Iris' doomed marriage and what exactly happened for her husband to decide to ship her to the loony bin.  We also get the story of Ambrose's war experience (including a shocking revelation at the end that explains why his time in the military haunts him so much).  I also loved the quirky secondary characters and the imagination the author put into describing their various illnesses. Some of them (such as Lydia with a penchant for swallowing odd objects) seem perfectly normal at first.

I did think the doctor's son Wendell was a little odd though.  He is obsessed with a former patient who died and seems to think his new found fascination with *ahem* self exploration makes him mentally ill.  Even though I didn't care for this particular character much, I still felt sorry for him as it must be awful to grow up surrounded by the mentally disturbed and have a father so full of himself he doesn't pay attention to you.  This story is touching and tragic and although I was a wee bit let down by the ending, I enjoyed it quite a bit.  The let down feeling was not because the ending was bad but rather because my hopes for the characters weren't entirely realized.  I recommend this to anyone who loves Civil War era historical fiction.  It is definitely a unique story.

 This book was provided to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.


  1. I have this out from the library. Might dig in to it today.

  2. Sounds like a good one! I have not dabbled much into Civil War historical fiction - it may be a good era to "visit". :)

  3. This sounds fantastic, with a little bit of everything. I must get my hands on a copy!

  4. I loved this one. It was different and not quite what I expected from looking at the cover.