Blue Asylum by Kathy Hepinstall
Author: Kathy Hepinstall
Genre: Historical Fiction
Release Date: April 10th, 2012
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Source: Copy provided by publisher for TLC Book Tours
Blue Asylum opens with a young woman on board a ship headed to Sanibel Asylum off the coast of Florida. Wondering how everything escalated from a simple life on her parents' farm to having her mental health quickly declared by a judge to be lacking, she must endure the journey to the small island while surrounded by the sound and smell of cattle. Daring to free slaves and lead them to freedom, Iris Dunleavy has been sent to the asylum in the hopes that she can be rehabilitated to a proper southern wife after standing up to her wealthy plantation owning husband in Virginia.
After arriving at Sanibel, Iris is quickly put under the care of the supervising doctor Henry Cowell whose methods are considered the best throughout the country. One of the more "modern" techniques of the facility is the harsh and debilitating water treatment used to reign in those who become out of control. In addition to caring for his patients, Dr. Cowell must also look after his troubled twelve-year-old son Wendell and his wife Mary who he keeps subdued with laudanum and trinkets.
Over the weeks Iris meets many of the other unusual tenants of the asylum including a woman who believes her dead husband is still alive and right beside her, a man who thinks his feet are impossibly heavy, and a lady who swallows anything she can get her hands on. Among those who are visibly ill, she spots Ambrose Weller playing checkers in the common area. Ambrose is a Confederate soldier who relies on the color blue to help combat the frightening memories of his past. The two form a bond of love, and Iris begins to plot an escape from the island. Blue Asylum offers a very emotional and gripping tale that puts into question the definitions of both insanity and freedom.
Kathy Hepinstall has created quite a deep, meaningful story especially considering the novel's shorter length. I must admit that I was surprised at how quickly I became enthralled with the writing. She manages to include those little details that really build up a story without drowning the narrative in exposition. I'm very impressed that in approximately 280 pages Hepinstall does what takes a lot of authors double that page count to achieve. It is this clear and precise prose that helps create such an intense atmosphere. A luxury mental hospital surrounded by swaying palm trees and crashing waves quickly gives way to an eerie environment filled with swamps, alligators, and questionable patients that make the reader constantly assess Iris' safety.
In terms of characterization, I give Blue Asylum a solid A. Iris and Ambrose are both developed slowly through the revelation of the events that led to their imprisonment, which I thought was done with appropriate pacing. The many secondary characters definitely help make the hospital lively. Each has an intriguing story of their own, but Hepinstall makes sure to never let them weigh down the narrative. However, it was Dr. Cowell who stole the show for me. This man truly believes he is helping those around him with his theories and practices. He devotes his life to restoring people to becoming functional members of society again at the expense of his own family. His story offers up so many questions. Can mental illness be "cured?" What defines those who are classified as insane? Is a doctor just as mad as the patients he treats?
The combination of the Civil War time period and the elements of an insane asylum meld together nicely, and I found this representation of modern psychiatry's early implementation fascinating. Blue Asylum explores the lengths to which a person's mind will go in the name of self preservation and blurs the lines between what is real and imagined. This historical fiction offers many different ideas to explore including women's rights and slavery, making this an excellent choice for book clubs. There is so much to discuss regarding mental illness and the treatment of those considered "crazy" as well as delving into the definition of freedom. Kathy Hepinstall has created an absorbing novel that I just couldn't put down!
About Kathy Hepinstall
Kathy Hepinstall is the author of three previous novels, The House of Gentle Men (a Los Angeles Times bestseller), The Absence of Nectar (a national bestseller), and The Prince of Lost Places. She is an award-winning creative director and advertising writer, whose clients have included top brands in American business. She grew up in Texas.
Visit Kathy at her website, read her blog and view the book trailer for Blue Asylum!