When I was growing up, family members told stories about families in the South and elsewhere who used to commit rebellious young women to insane asylums or lock them in attics if they were too uppity or didn’t conform to society’s rules. These were not madwomen, at least not by today’s standards – they were just women who weren’t pliable and meek. Those stories horrified me because I knew I would be an uppity woman from the time I was an uppity young girl. So you can see why I might be drawn to Blue Asylum by bestselling author Kathy Hepinstall, kind of like a toothache my tongue can’t resist exploring.
This is a Southern Gothic novel of determination, strength, love, and madness, all set during the Civil War. I’m thrilled the publisher has offered an advance readers’ copy (ARC) for one lucky reader to win in our giveaway for the No Strings Attached Giveaway Hop!
Iris’ family arranged for her to marry Mr. Dunleavy, a Virginia plantation owner. In doing so, everyone, including Iris, thought they were arranging a good marriage for her with a man who shared their ideals and values. Unfortunately Mr. Dunleavy had presented himself falsely. Instead of being someone who treated his slaves like employees and was in the process of freeing them, he was a harsh taskmaster for them. He also treated Iris like just another piece of property, another slave.
Iris isn’t having any and, in her desperation to escape his cruelty toward her and his slaves, she secretly plots a slave revolt and escape. She knows that if she can get them as far as her parents’ home, they will make it. And the plan would have worked except for one thing, she overrides the slaves on which direction their escape should take, inadvertently leading them right into the path of their pursuers. The slaves are slaughtered and her husband literally hauls her before a local judge he knows, where he invents a tale about her insanity that leads the judge to declare her officially mad.
“When she woke on the [jailhouse] floor, on that cold blanket, she thought first of the man who had murdered those innocent people by the barely crawling light of dawn, but her rage held down something deeper, something that searched for oxygen to speak.
Her trial lasted less than an hour. The judge didn’t want to hear her story. None of it mattered.”
She is to be confined to an asylum until cured of the madness believed to be at the heart of her refusal to be a submissive wife. From Virginia, Iris is literally carted in chains to Florida. From there she is taken by small boat to Sanibel Island in the Gulf of Mexico. Sanibel Island is completely cut off from civilization, not only because of its island nature but also because the Civil War has resulted in military blockades in the area. Iris is told she is very fortunate that she is being taken to this state-of-the-art facility run by Dr. Cowell, a renowned psychiatrist who has perfected a treatment that’s very effective. (We now know that treatment as water boarding, and we all know how controversial that treatment/torture is.)
“Iris stepped off the gangplank and onto dry sand, the short heels of her leather boots crunching in it…As she approached the courtyard she saw what wasn’t visible from a distance. The windows had bars on them.
A dozen people milled about the courtyard, guarded by attendants in white uniforms. One young man sat alone at a small round table set up near the steps. He had high cheekbones and was dressed in army-issues pants, a white shirt, and a thin coat…He looked up as she approached him. Something about his gaze was comforting…The man did not seem insane.”
When she arrives, Iris finds the facility residents to be an odd bunch but at first glance most of them appear to be fairly normal people. The residence facility is very nice but the matron is a nasty piece of work, who takes great delight in bullying and humiliating Iris. Bodyguards, residence hall staff, and Dr. Cowell’s family also reside on the island.
Dr. Cowell’s wife is addicted to laudanum and that means his twelve-year-old son, Wendell, has free run of the island 24 hours a day. With no one even close to his age, Wendell’s main entertainments include fishing with cook, hunting for rare sea shells, exploring every nook and cranny of the island, and observing the inmates. Needless to say, his is not a normal life by any means.
Iris soon meets the other residents and finds herself drawn to one in particular, Ambrose Weller. Ambrose is a Confederate soldier who seems like a true gentleman and is handsome in a gaunt, tortured way. She can’t understand why he’s there, even though she’s told he flies into rages and forgets where he is at times. Today we would say Ambrose has post traumatic shock disorder (PTSD) but there were no such labels then. Dr. Cowell’s solution is for him to think of the color blue to prevent thinking about the horrible things in his memories from the war. It works some of the time. Iris is drawn to him like a moth to the flame.
Meanwhile Iris finds Dr. Cowell contemptible at best. He has no interest in listening to her side of the story about how she came to be there, dismissing everything she says as the ravings of a madwoman. His point of view, like most of society, is that women are quasi-property combined with a child-like mind, and are to be seen and not heard. He furthermore believes women must at all times bend to their husband’s will due to their husband’s superior intellect, i.e., that women’s minds are not developed enough to know what is best. Needless to say the quite intelligent Iris thinks he’s a pompous ass.
“’There has been a mistake. I do not belong here. I am here simply for the act of defying my husband, who is a man of most indecent character.’”
Iris also has further run-ins with the matron, who seeks vengeance against her lack of submissiveness toward the matron by manipulating Dr. Cowell into ordering water treatment for her. That is the last straw and Iris knows if she doesn’t get off the island she will lose her sanity. She begins to plot a way for her and for Ambrose to escape. Is Ambrose well enough to leave? Who could she dare to trust in her situation? What a nightmare of a situation to be in! Can they escape? Even if they somehow do get back to the mainland, where the war continues to rage, can they survive in that environment?
My heart was in my throat for much of the time while reading Blue Asylum. Iris had stood up for her beliefs against overwhelming odds. Was she sane? Was she insane? In my mind, she was sane with her only crime being that she was an intelligent person who refused to bend to her cruel husband’s will. What about the others on this remote island in the middle of nowhere? Which of them were sane and which insane?
What about Ambrose? A lot of women have a rescuer gene in them, and Iris demonstrated early in the novel that she was a compassionate rescuer of wounded birds, as a therapist friend once called that syndrome. Of course she fell for Ambrose and believed in her arrogance that her love would be enough to “fix” him, if he indeed needed fixing. The question is whether Ambrose is sane enough to function away from the security of the remote island facility. To discover what happens to Ambrose, you have to read Blue Asylum.
I have to admit, I could not put Blue Asylum down once I started reading it. I had to see it through and read late into the night. Ms. Hepinstall’s writing style flows, painting rich portraits of the setting and each person. I’m so glad that I can offer the ARC of Blue Asylum in our No Strings Attached giveaway!
Can’t wait to read it?
Blue Asylum was published in the U.S. on April 10, 2012, so it should be available from your favorite bookseller below. Just click the button to go there to get it.
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One lucky reader will win an advance readers’ copy of Blue Asylum by Kathy Hepinstall!
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This one is very simple! Just one entry per person – easy, peasy!
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