Thinking About Blue

Sanibel Island sunset
Sanibel Island sunset

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.

Sanibel shells
Sanibel shells

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.


A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler’s Library, recreating her family’s past at Ancestors In Aprons . She writes frequently for Reel Life With Jane and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

Vera Marie Badertscher – who has written posts on A Traveler's Library.

About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She writes frequently for Reel Life With Jane and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

11 thoughts on “Thinking About Blue

  1. Intriguing story and I really want to know more, but I seem to need a more straightforward storyline these days. Maybe because my life is one hectic day after another, and reading needs to be a calming thing in my life.

  2. I’ve yet to visit Sanibel but have always wanted to spend time there. I hadn’t thought much about a connection to the Civil War until reading your review. Now I’ve ordered Blue Asylum. Can’t wait to read it.

  3. This sounds like my kind of book. I’m a bit of a Civil War buff and my family used to vacation at Sanibel. Add to that in our own family history there are relatives on both sides of the conflict including one who died after his time in a prisoner of war camp.

  4. This is the kind of book I would either love or rather hate. I don’t do so well with non-linear narratives but all of the themes in the book (and the story itself) sound so interesting…

  5. okay the cover of the book ‘got’ me- and then your review- it really GOT me!!!!! I love reading about that time period- who am I kidding- I love reading about ALL time periods!! :) No seriously, I want to get caught up in the wonderful imagery- although I do believe I’ll feel as deflated as you did when I finish- because I will regret that it is over.

    Thanks for introducing this book!

  6. I have heard of this beach and would love to visit, and now your book lends an armchair opportunity to do so.

  7. Great choice of photos. Wow.. those quotes.. I can’t seem to get it out of my mind. This book sounds great. I’ll have to go check out the kindle price

  8. What an intriguing review, which is impelling me to buy the book. I’m already familiar with Hepinstall’s earlier work and she’s an excellent writer.

  9. It is a beautiful place to set this story. Reading the passages you highlight was difficult, I felt my stomach tighten on the second quote. While, as you say, it was a struggle to get back to the 21st century, it means to me the author did her job.

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