Sanibel Island, Florida, in 1864 is a place of sunshine, beautiful white beaches, clear blue water, hermit crabs, sawgrass, alligators, and gumbo limbo trees. It’s also home to one of America’s most elite lunatic asylums, and the residents’ idiosyncrasies and maladies somehow fit the quirky ecology.
The newest patient, Iris Dunleavy, knows she isn’t insane. She’s being punished for embarrassing her spiteful husband, a Virginia plantation owner who cruelly treats his slaves.
Although it claims to be modern, the facility’s methods are often as absurd as the behavior of the supposed lunatics. Superintendent Dr. Henry Cowell equates women’s suffrage with hysteria, his neglected wife takes laudanum, and then there’s the “water treatment” the matron darkly hints at. Despite the serene seaside atmosphere, nobody is content.
Iris’s arrival throws the atmosphere into disarray. Dr. Cowell is perplexed by her defiance yet attracted against his better judgment. As Iris fights for a way to free herself, she becomes close to Ambrose Weller, a tormented Confederate soldier who’s been taught to calm himself by thinking of the color blue.
With everyone convinced of her madness, Iris’s only hope lies in Wendell, Dr. Cowell’s curious and lonely adolescent son. However, her emotional bond with Ambrose will tie her to the island unless she can finagle an escape for them both.
From the very beginning, with Iris's transportation to Sanibel on a ship full of doomed cattle, colorful situations and creative metaphors add to the novel’s originality. But as Iris’s and Ambrose’s personal histories are exposed, a growing sense of dread becomes paramount. The convergence of personalities, locale, and timeframe means that almost anything can happen, and it’s impossible not to feel angry at the terrible treatment and awful choices these characters faced.
Blue Asylum might seem to take a sidelong approach to the horrors of the Civil War, but in the end it makes its points head on. In this effective depiction of a world gone topsy-turvy, the difference between crazy and sane is as hard to explain as the war itself: “Just a sea of delusion, blue at high tide, gray at low.”
Blue Asylum was published by HMH in April at $24.00 (hb, 270pp). I have a nice hardcover copy to give away to an interested blog reader. To enter, fill out the form below. Deadline Tuesday, July 31st. This contest is open internationally.