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?
Blue Asylum is a vibrant, beautifully-imagined, absorbing story of the lines we all cross between sanity and madness. It is also the tale of a spirited woman, a wounded soldier, their impossible love, and the undeniable call of freedom.
When Iris dreamed of that morning, the taste of blood was gone, and so was the odor of gunsmoke, but her other senses stayed alive. The voices around her distinct. The heel of a bare foot between her ribs. The pressure of the pile of bodies on her chest. Was this what the others had felt too, as they died around her? Her dream followed the reality so well that when the bodies were yanked away from her, one by one, the weight released and the darkness cleared, and she jerked upright, gasping, on the floor of a jail cell in Fort Lane. She'd been given a blanket and nothing else, not even a pillow, for she had been judged insane even before the trial began, and her jailers followed the logic that the mad shunned the comforts of the rational. When she awoke on the floor, on that cold blanket, she thought first of the man who had murdered those innocent people by the barely crawling light of dawn, but her rage held down something deeper, something that searched for oxygen to speak. Her ...
Juxtaposing the Civil War with Iris's struggles as a woman in the South invites comparison of the two. Battle lines are clearly drawn in Blue Asylum - blue versus gray/men versus women - but Hepinstall is careful not to render judgment of guilt or innocence for any of the characters. Instead she reveals their personalities slowly in a series of flashbacks, and leaves the readers to judge for themselves. The result is not the grist of fairy tale love stories but rather the portrayal of a complex relationship.
(Reviewed by Mark James).
Full Review (1105 words).
In Kathy Hepinstall's Civil War-era novel, Blue Asylum, Iris Dunleavy is sent to live in the Sanibel Asylum for Lunatics on Sanibel Island, Florida for the "act of defying [her] husband." Though the area is now considered a mecca for lovers of sea shells (SanibelHistory.org estimates that the resident population of about 6000 swells by 20,000 - 30,000 people per week during peak shelling season), it wasn't always such a relaxed place.
It is said that Sanibel Island formed about six thousand years ago. According to the Sanibel Captiva Chamber of Commerce, the process was the result of sediment rising from the sea "after being shaped by centuries of storm activity."
Dating back 2,500 years, the main inhabitats of the island were ...
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