Blue Asylum

by Kathy Hepinstall

Reviewed by Margaret Donsbach

Set toward the end of the Civil War, Blue Asylum is the story of a woman forced into an insane asylum on Florida's Sanibel Island for opposing her husband's brutal treatment of his slaves. Although the asylum is fictional, the psychiatrist who runs it reflects both the nineteenth century's reforming humanitarian spirit in the care of mental patients, as well as prejudices and lingering practices that, however well-intentioned, were more torturous than therapeutic in effect.

Iris Dunleavy has been judged insane by a court and committed to the Sanibel Asylum for Lunatics. There she meets the asylum's manager, the zealous Dr. Cowell; Cowell's sweet, slightly wild twelve-year-old son; the asylum's sadistic matron, more aware than the doctor of the true nature of his "water treatment;" and a Confederate soldier terribly damaged by his wartime experiences. Sure of her own sanity, Iris is prepared to assume the other inmates are sane until they demonstrate otherwise, and she treats all with unfailing respect. She rightly scorns Dr. Cowell's stubborn confidence in his methods. By the novel's end, though, she makes the humbling discovery that some of her own certainties may be similarly, dangerously misguided.

Blue Asylum is an atypical Civil War novel. Although the characters' memories of slavery and warfare are vivid and horrifying, the story focuses on the strangeness of asylum life. Like the asylum, its natural setting is simultaneously peaceful and menacing. Hepinstall evokes this complex mood in prose that appeals to all the senses: "Under the moon the sand on the beach shone ghostly white. In the swamps, crocodile eyes shone red. A light breeze came through, just enough to take the fragrance of the spring flowers and make it sweep through everything like a collective wish." (2012, 270 pages)

More about Blue Asylum at Powell's Books or

Other novels set in mental institutions:

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters (2002), about a London pickpocket who poses as a lady's maid as part of a scheme to defraud an heiress; the latter part of the novel depicts a nineteenth-century mental institution. See review or more info at Powell's Books

The Question of Hu by Jonathan D. Spence (1988), about a Chinese peasant brought to Paris by a Jesuit missionary in 1722 and left in an insane asylum. More info

Detroit Breakdown by D.E. Johnson (2012), a mystery set in 1912 featuring an auto mechanic who investigates a murder in an insane asylum; #3 in the Will Anderson mystery series. More info

Nonfiction about the history of mental institutions:

The Art of Asylum-Keeping: Thomas Kirkbride and the Origins of American Psychiatry by Nancy Tomes (1994). More info

Gracefully Insane: Life and Death Inside America's Premier Mental Institution by Alex Beam (2001), a history of the McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts, founded in 1817 as a treatment center for mentally ill patients from wealthy families. More info

Ten Days in a Mad-House by Nellie Bly (1887), the nineteenth-century journalist's account of her stay in the Women's Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell's Island, New York, where she feigned insanity in order to report on conditions in the asylum. More info


The Most Famous and Notorious Insane Asylums in History at the Huffington Post

Back to Novels of Nineteenth-Century America

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