Destination: Sanibel Island, Florida, 1860s
Book: Blue Asylum (NEW 2012) by Kathy Hepinstall
The story of Blue Asylum follows the life of Iris, a plantation wife who perpetrated such an unthinkable act that her husband quite effortlessly got her declared insane and shipped her off to the most humane mental hospital in the country under the care of the self-assured Dr. Cowell on Sanibel Island. This deceptively simple story set me pondering the hardships of war, the definition of mental illness, feminism, slavery, American history, nature and survival.
Author Kathy Hepinstall presents the world of the 1860s with all its cultural quirks in such a deeply realistic way that I had to struggle my way back to the 21st century when I took a break from reading.
Ambrose Weller, another inmate, clearly suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome–a malady as yet unidentified during the Civil War. He periodically goes mad, shouting and struggling to concentrate on the color blue, as Dr. Cowell has instructed. But as he flashes back to his war experience, we gradually learn his whole story. Here is his first flashback, an example of Hepinstall’s skill at painting nature.
Ambrose killed his first man in filtered sunlight, so close he could see his enemy’s face. He was in a wood lot managed by the Mennonites. Bluebirds had flown away, squawking, and the other animals had disappeared down burrows or into the holes of trees. Even the ants had towed their white eggs into passages made in rotting logs. The animals in that cool, brief forest were accustomed to the sleepy sound of an ax in red oak, and not the energy of war.
That last sentence alone magically conjures the entire Civil War. Simply brilliant.
Hepinstall introduces us to an attitude toward women that some still struggle against. Here made tragic by the comparison with the condition of slavery and the fact that the mental doctor considered the most compassionate in the country, sympathizes with Iris’ wronged husband and dismisses her story as (literally) crazy. The doctor’s thoughts:
Women, he decided, became unhappier the better they were treated. He pitied her husband and wondered what tricks of perception, what prayers, what gin had got him through daily life with her.
Gems of descriptive writing come so fast, that I must have used up a whole box of metal pointers as I read through Blue Asylum. The sound of the sea: “It was a sound that bowed to no other, neither bell, nor cannonade, nor bugle, nor a man’s beating heart.” A crowd is drawn by “the salty boiled-crab smell of rising tensions.”
The struggle between Iris and the doctor becomes “a microcosm of the great war raging in the far distance: one side that desired autonomy, and the other that took independence as a sign of madness.”
The young son of the doctor, trapped on this island full of adults, most of them considered abnormal, wonders if he is also crazy. He does typical boy things, exploring the surrounding beaches and swampy areas, catching fish, collecting shells, trying to figure out the surrounding adults. His untainted world view throws in contrast the certainty of adult prejudices.
The story is not linear, but rather unreels in flashbacks between present actions. That technique particularly suits a story that draws the reader into contemplation of the workings of the mind. It also limits what I can say about the story and the characters without spoiling your own meandering journey through their lives. The journey is most worthwhile, although I felt a bit deflated by the end. I have tried to figure out my dissatisfaction, but perhaps it was only because I hated to have all these beautifully presented and interesting concepts come to an end. I felt that I had been wandering through a gallery of ideas, painted in graceful colorful words and I just wanted to stay on Sanibel Island, or at least with the challenging woman, Iris.
To come back to A Traveler’s Library world–where we read books to inspire travel–you do not have to time travel to Civil War days to enjoy the beauty of Sanibel Island. We stopped there during a trip to Florida and were totally charmed. Sanibel and its sister island Captiva lie off the Gulf Coast across from Ft. Meyers, Florida. Sanibel particularly draws people to its shell-covered beaches as this book review for family travel points out. The Ding Darling Wild Life Refuge can show you what the island would have looked during the time period of Blue Asylum. The real life history of the island is interesting, too. On the other hand, you can just lie on a beautiful white beach and listen to the waves.
The lovely pictures of Sanibel here come from Flickr and are used with Creative Commons license. Please click on the picture to learn more about the photographers. The publishers provided a copy of Blue Asylum for review. The links to Amazon are affiliate links, meaning that if you buy through those links, you are supporting A Traveler’s Library. Thanks.