Author: Kathy Hepinstall
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Release Date: 4-10-12
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 – Goodreads
Iris Dunleavy has been sent to Sanibel Asylum to work with the renowned psychologist, Dr. Cowell. Dr. Cowell is convinced that Iris can be cured of her mental illness, which includes the crime of disobeying her husband in one desperate act which the reader finds out about later in the story. Through her challenging meetings with Dr. Cowell, we get to know two people who believe strongly; Iris believes in her sanity and Dr, Cowell believes her can cure Iris. During her time at Sanibel, Iris slowly learns that everyone on the island participates in some act that helps them preserve innocence. Wendel, Dr. Cowell’s heartbroken son, cares for a lamb meant for slaughter, a patient talks to a wife that has long since passed away and Ambrose imagines color in order to hold off his severe PTSD. Although Dr. Cowell’s methods seem antiquated and even cruel to a reader today, it is clear that he believes he is on the cutting edge of his medical profession. It is only after some haunting statements from Iris, “I am a woman, Doctor. I do not have a voice”, that the reader is reminded that he is as much a prison warden as he is a doctor. As Dr. Cowell slowly learns Iris’s story, the careful world that he built starts to crumble and even his family is not immune from the changes that are taking place.
Blue Asylum is beautifully written with a cast of characters that is both darkly comical and tragic. The island has created its own little emotional ecosystem that is isolated from the war and from most aspects of the outside world. Because of that, I think that the asylum itself isn’t as threatening as an asylum during this time period would normally be. Iris turns her determination to Ambrose and she knows that he can be saved, if only she could get him off of the island. Although it might be easy to cast good and evil in this story, the lines become increasing blurred as the story progresses. Those that seemed evil are humanized and those that would do good have a selfish side, as well. That kind of window into the heart of people and their motivations, whether good or destructive, create a wonderful world full of questions. The asylum was a prison to Iris, but it served as a protector from the brutal and destructive war that turned the world outside of Sanibel Island into a living nightmare for many people. In the end, I was left with a question in my head that I can’t really answer simply: what really makes a person free?
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