Interpreting historical fiction within a contemporary context - for example, reading Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain as a commentary on the 1990s, the time in which the book was published - and searching for modern meanings in stories set in the past seems to be a favorite pastime of literary critics. Recreational readers may scoff at such efforts, but scholarly and casual readers alike will welcome Kathy Hepinstall's novel, Blue Asylum.
It's ostensibly a love story, but what emerges is an exposé of a nation and culture steeped in the hubris that allowed the legacy of slavery and the denial of basic civil rights to all but white males flourish well into the 20th century.
The novel is set during the American Civil War at a time when women enjoyed few rights, and, not unlike the present state of affairs, the country was caught in the conservative/liberal partisan divide. Iris Dunleavy - the daughter of a pious Methodist minister and the wife of a wealthy slaveowner - makes the mistake of crossing her husband when doing so is considered a jailable offense.
Iris's parents don't agree with the practice of human bondage, but the young woman turns a blind eye to their beliefs, overwhelmed by her husband's wealth and the opportunity to escape her small-town existence. Once wed, however, she quickly comes to understand the cruel realities of both slavery and her marriage - there is little difference between the two - and she sees the reach of the absolute power her husband wields.
Iris's upbringing provides her with a strong notion of right and wrong, a sense that spills over from indignation to activism. Her protests, however, soon land her on Sanibel Island, Florida. Her destination is the Sanibel Asylum for Lunatics, a progressive, yet exclusive and expensive mental institution. She has been convicted and sent away for what she calls the "act of defying [her] husband" - a man she says is "of most indecent character." It's his prerogative to send her there, and unbeknownst to her parents, he ships her off to this distant sanitorium.
Sanibel Island is a quiet place, with bucolic beaches and no winters to speak of. Even though the Civil War rages to the north, the staff and patients are isolated from its impact. But when Iris meets Ambrose Weller, a Confederate soldier suffering from what we call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, she quickly becomes involved. She thinks she knows how to help him, but the men in charge at the asylum do not tolerate such notions - they believe she's not capable. Dr. Cowell, the head psychiatrist at the Sanibel Asylum, is renowned for his study of the "relationship of female lunacy and the suffrage movement in America." Of course his treatise implies that such a relationship exists; he is so dogmatic in his practice that he can't see the harm of his theories and treatments. In this way, Hepinstall masters the art of subtlety in Blue Asylum.
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 clad soldiers 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.
This review was originally published in May 2012, and has been updated for the April 2013 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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