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 Amazon.com