During the Civil War, a young woman named Iris is convicted of insanity and sent to a mental institute on Sanibel Island, off the Gulf coast of Florida. Her crimes? Disobeying her cruel husband and having compassion for their slaves. The full story of the events that led to Iris’ committal is slowly revealed as the novel proceeds.
The doctor who runs the asylum has good intentions and fully believes that he is helping the patients there, but his ideas about insanity, treatment, and recovery align with those that were common at that time, as he explains to Iris:
“Do you know the definition of insanity? …It is a state of mind in which an excess of feeling – a hysteria if you will – causes a man or woman to fall out of step with their roles, their purpose, because without that purpose all of s are diminished. Sanity is the degree by which you serve your society, your community, and your household. I am of the opinion that with the right medicines, structure, counsel, and guidance, one can arrive upon, eventually, a cure. And a cure, in every sense, both is proved by and results in a reintegration.”
By that definition, I think that most modern women would be considered insane!
Against this backdrop, the novel follows Iris and her fellow patients as the doctor tries to “cure” them. Some of the patients clearly have serious mental illnesses, some have odd problems that serve to lighten the mood of the story, and some are soldiers suffering from what we now call Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome. One of the latter (and more serious) is Ambrose Weller, whose story – like Iris’ – slowly comes to light as the novel evolves. Iris and Ambrose become friends, playing checkers together and sharing happy childhood memories as they slowly get to know each other and gradually become more comfortable sharing more recent (and more frightening) details of their lives with each other.
Besides the patients, other characters include the employees of the asylum – some kind and some cruel – and the doctor’s wife and young son, Wendell, who are almost as much prisoners on the island as the inmates. Wendell is an especially endearing character in the novel, as he yearns for his father’s attention, worries about his own boyish sins, and develops a bit of a crush on Iris.
This was a great book for discussion, with so many interesting facets to talk about: the historical background of the Civil War and the treatment of slaves, Iris’ and Ambrose’s slowly developing relationship and their individual nightmares of horrifying experiences, the doctor’s own problems with patients and his family, and the fascinating (though appalling) perspectives of that time with respect to women, their roles, and insanity. In addition, the island itself is more than just setting – it is like a living, breathing entity defined by wildness and isolation. All in all, everyone in our book discussion thoroughly enjoyed this historical novel and was intrigued by the questions and situations it presented.