Monday, May 6, 2013

Blue Asylum by Kathy Hepinstall

I've been returning to the South again in my reading lately.  But, the book I'm reading now is about time travel and England, so I've moved pretty far beyond the South after this novel.  I'm sure I'll be visiting the South again soon.

But--Blue Asylum is definitely not a typical Civil War-Era type of novel.  It explores a problem many women faced in the 1800's:  not agreeing with their husbands, and being accused of insanity.  Off they are sent to asylums, often not ever seeing freedom again.  

Iris Dunleavy has been sent to Sanibel Island (off the coast of Florida) to an asylum (the best, most expensive one around) because she is not the biddable wife her husband wants.  She's been set before a judge, convicted of insanity, and sent away.  All in the midst of the Civil War; her husband is a Virginia plantation owner who is truly cruel and mean.  What Iris did to stroke his anger is slowly revealed throughout the novel--but she is by no means insane.  If anyone is, it's her husband.  

On Sanibel Island, there is a cast of characters:  Dr. Cowell, the man in charge;  his young son Wendell who is the only child on the island; and Ambrose Weller; a Rebel soldier suffering moments of intense PTSD.  Ambrose is an honorable man; quietly playing chess--he's different from the rest of the inmates who are clearly quite insane.  Iris is determined to leave the island, but Dr. Cowell refuses to believe her story--his blindness masks a growing attraction to this patient who is quite unlike anyone else on the island.  

Wendell is a 12 year old boy who has spent most of his life on the island.  He runs around, fishes, collects shells, and tries very hard to move past an infatuation with a previous patient that ended in tragedy.  He is a bit lost and trying to find his place on the island.  

Iris and Ambrose soon connect and begin to play checkers every day, telling each other their tales, slowly revealing what brought them to Sanibel Island.  They are falling in love, and even though Iris is married, they hope to escape and be together.  Can Iris save Ambrose from his war demons?  Can Iris ever be believed, or will her husband win again?  

I've read some reviews where people said this book was just too depressing.  It is sad.  It reveals the horrors of war and slavery; and making choices that can haunt a person until they are driven mad. Can we ever be at peace with our past?  I'll just say that Ambrose will tear your heart out.  

Add this to your list if you like Southern fiction.  It reminded me a bit of The Rebel Wife --a twist on the usual Civil War fiction.  It also would be a great book group title.  

Rating:  7/10 for Iris and Ambrose and their haunting tales; a subject that it not explored much in modern fiction, and a beautiful setting on Sanibel Island.

Available in hardcover, paperback, and e-book.

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