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Spotlight on The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

good lord bird

About The Book:

From Riverhead Hardcover

From the bestselling author of The Color of Water and Song Yet Sung comes the story of a young boy born a slave who joins John Brown’s antislavery crusade—and who must pass as a girl to survive.

Henry Shackleford is a young slave living in the Kansas Territory in 1857, when the region is a battleground between anti- and pro-slavery forces. When John Brown, the legendary abolitionist, arrives in the area, an argument between Brown and Henry’s master quickly turns violent. Henry is forced to leave town—with Brown, who believes he’s a girl.

Over the ensuing months, Henry—whom Brown nicknames Little Onion—conceals his true identity as he struggles to stay alive. Eventually Little Onion finds himself with Brown at the historic raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859—one of the great catalysts for the Civil War.

An absorbing mixture of history and imagination, and told with McBride’s meticulous eye for detail and character, The Good Lord Bird is both a rousing adventure and a moving exploration of identity and survival.

About The Author:

James McBride is an author, musician and screenwriter. His landmark memoir, “The Color of Water,” is considered an American James_McBrideclassic and read in schools and universities across the United States. His debut novel, “Miracle at St. Anna” was translated into a major motion picture directed by American film icon Spike Lee. It was released by Disney/Touchstone in September 2008. James also wrote the script for the film, now available on DVD. His novel, “Song Yet Sung,” was released in paperback in January 2009. His new novel about American revolutionary John Brown will be released in Feb. 2013. His latest work is the August 2013 film “Red Hook Summer” which he co-wrote and co-produced with acclaimed director Spike Lee.

James is the worst dancer in the history of African Americans, bar none, going back to slavetime and beyond. He should be legally barred from dancing at any party he attends. He dances with one finger in the air like a white guy.

He is also a former staff writer for The Boston Globe, People Magazine and The Washington Post. His work has appeared in Essence, Rolling Stone, and The New York Times. His April, 2007 National Geographic story entitled “Hip Hop Planet” is considered a respected treatise on African American music and culture.

James toured as a sideman with jazz legend Jimmy Scott among others. He has also written songs (music and lyrics) for Anita Baker, Grover Washington Jr., Purafe, Gary Burton, and even for the PBS television character “Barney.” He did not write the “I Love You” song for Barney but wishes he did. He received the Stephen Sondheim Award and the Richard Rodgers Foundation Horizon Award for his musical “Bo-Bos” co-written with playwright Ed Shockley. His 2003 “Riffin’ and Pontificatin’ ” Musical Tour was captured in a nationallly televised Comcast documentary. He has been featured on national radio and television in America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand.

James is a native New Yorker and a graduate of  New York City public schools. He studied composition at The Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio and received his Masters in Journalism from Columbia University in New York at age 22. He holds several honorary doctorates and is currently a Distinguished Writer in Residence at New York University.

Bookmagnet Says:

I cannot stop thinking about McBride’s newest novel.  Little Onion’s voice resonates with authenticity and humor.  In re-imagining one of the most important events in American history, McBride creates a rousing romp of a story.  I absolutely loved it and plan on reviewing the book next week.


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Spotlight on The Resurrectionist by Matthew Guinn

I am reading a spectacular debut by an exciting new literary talent.  It’s Matthew Guinn’s The Resurrectionist, coming July 8 from W.WNorton & Company.

“Sleepers, awake!”

Resurecctionist n. (a). Hist. A body-snatcher; a resurrection man; (bgen. a person who resurrects something (lit. & fig.); (c) a believer in resurrection

About The Book:

resurrectionistA young doctor wrestles with the legacy of a slave “resurrectionist” owned by his South Carolina medical school.

Nemo Johnston was one of many Civil War–era “resurrectionists” responsible for procuring human corpses for doctors’ anatomy training. More than a century later, Dr. Jacob Thacker, a young medical resident on probation for Xanax abuse and assigned to work public relations for his medical school’s dean, finds himself facing a moral dilemma when a campus renovation unearths the bones of dissected African American slaves—a potential PR disaster for the school. Will Jacob, still a stranger to his own history, continue to be complicit in the dean’s cover-up or will he risk his entire career to force the school to face its dark past?

First-time novelist Matthew Guinn deftly weaves historical and fictional truth, salted with contemporary social satire, and traditional Southern Gothic into a tale of shocking crimes and exquisite revenge—and a thoroughly absorbing and entertaining moral parable of the South.





About The Author:

A native of Atlanta, Matthew Guinn earned a BA in English from the University of Georgia. He continued graduate school at the Matthew_GuinnUniversity of Mississippi, where he met his wife Kristen and completed a master’s degree. At the University of South Carolina, where he earned a Ph.D. in English, he was personal assistant to the late James Dickey. In addition to the Universities of Mississippi and South Carolina, he has taught at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and at Tulane University’s School of Continuing Studies in Madison, Mississippi.

Matthew and Kristen live in Jackson, Mississippi, with their two children, Braiden and Phoebe.




“Dog days and the fresh bodies are arriving once again.”

Historical Note: (from the book)

The events of The Resurrectionist are drawn from actual medical practice in the southern United States from the mid-nineteenth century to the late twentieth.

Guinn is indebted to Abraham Flexner and Robert L. Blakely.

Abraham Flexner was a crusader for medical college reform in the early twentieth century; his report for the Carnegie resurrectionman02Foundation, entitled Medical Education in the United States and Canada, was published in 1910.  Flexner’s expose of the schools of his era–many of them rife with charlatanry, operated without regulation for pure profit–ushered in a new era of medical reform.  For sheer revelatory content, his report rivals any novelistic invention.

In 1989, the archaeologist Robert Blakely was called to the Medical College of Georgia when human remains were discovered in the earthen cellar of the campus’s oldest building during renovations.  His work, aided by the cooperation of MCG authorities, culminated in the publication of Bones in the Basement: Postmortem Racism in Nineteenth-Century Medical Training (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1997).  

Although Guinn changes names and locations, the character of Nemo Johnson is drawn from the enigmatic biography that Bones resurrectionman03in the Basement sketches of Grandison Harris, a slave purchased by the MCG faculty prior to the Civil War.  Harris functioned as the school’s janitor, butler, and body snatcher–or resurrectionist, in the parlance of the day.  With the faculty’s silent endorsement and support, Harris routinely pillaged Augusta’s African American cemetery, Cedar Grove, until his retirement in 1905.  Harris died in 1911, having never divulged his activities and without facing official censure for carrying out his nocturnal duties.  To date, the location of Grandison Harris’s remains in Cedar Grove is unknown.

Bookmagnet Says:

Prepare to be fascinated!

Here are some great websites to learn more:

Grandison Harris

My Georgia History

The legend

Purchase A Signed Copy From Lemuria Books


Filed under Bookmagnet's Best Books of the Month, books, Debut Novels, fiction, historical fiction, history, Lemuria Books, literary fiction, Southern fiction, Southern writers, Spotlight Books, Summer Reading

Book Review: Wash by Margaret Wrinkle


Wash by Margaret Wrinkle (Atlantic Monthly Press; 384 pages; $25).

            Two singular individuals, Richardson and Wash, bookend Margaret Wrinkle’s wisely assured debut, Wash.  Wrinkle, an Alabama native, uses Richardson and Wash to explore the inherent contradictions of slavery and freedom.  Although Richardson is white and Wash is black, the two men are both bound: Richardson by convention and Wash by the color of his skin.  Wash may be fiction, but Wrinkle writes this tale so credibly and accurately that the Old Southwest, with all its mayhem and turmoil, comes alive under her skilled hands.

Richardson had fought for freedom from tyranny in the Revolutionary War and had served his fledgling country in the War of 1812.  His father was an indentured servant.  During his last stint as a soldier, Richardson was captured by the British and chained as a prisoner of war.  His brief confinement, for him, was akin to being enslaved; not surprisingly, he did not like it very much.

By 1823, Richardson had settled in Tennessee and decided there was no more profit to be made in cotton.  Instead, he believed, the real money was in the procreation of slaves.  The United States government had banned slave importation from Africa in 1808; thus, the buying and selling of “countryborn,” or American-born slaves, was in high demand.

For Richardson, it’s pretty simple, really—he wants to make money.  He comes up with the idea to loan out his slave, Wash, to be a kind of “stud” to his neighbors.   The other masters line up to make appointments with Wash.  Every weekend, Wash visits certain female slaves and lies with them.  A slave midwife, Pallas, accompanies him to record their names and any resulting pregnancies and/or births.

“Wash” is short for Washington, a name Richardson bestowed on him at birth, a very common practice at the time.  As Wrinkle writes, Wash was the “first negro born to” Richardson, and he “wanted a name with some weight to it.”

When Wash does his duty, he travels deep inside himself, a technique he learned from his shamanistic West African mother.  Wash does not enjoy his position, even when it gives him opportunities not given to other slaves.  Wash would rather be with Pallas.

As the years pass, many children are born from Wash and the slave women.  Richardson gets a cut of exactly $200 for each child that is born.  Wash sees the irony.  Richardson gets “more than he bargained for” when Wash’s face and his ways begin “to crop up on most places round here. “  Richardson gave Wash “a big man’s name,” a name that Wash lives up to as he makes his “own country.”

Despite the money Richardson rakes in, he finds it difficult to sleep most nights.  He and other slaveholders like him worry that their slaves, who increasingly outnumber whites, will slaughter them in their beds as they sleep, just as Denmark Vesey planned to do in Charleston in 1822.  This fear was truly palpable for white masters.

Ironically, as whites fought in the revolution, taking up arms against their oppressors, their black slaves emulated their owners’ behavior time and again.  Most often, slaves resisted by running away, refusing to work, breaking tools, poisoning food, stealing animals, and many other minor rebellious acts.

Wrinkle truly shows just how “peculiar” the “peculiar institution” of slavery was in Wash when Richardson visits Wash at night to talk to him in the barn, Wash’s preferred place of rest.

A veteran of two wars, Richardson knows he himself fought for freedom from a tyrannical power.  He understands that holding men in bondage is antithetical to revolutionary ideals, but he is only one person and cannot abolish racial slavery.

Listening to Richardson at night, Wash entertains the thought of killing his master.  But Wash knows such an idea is futile and would mean his own death sentence.  So he listens to Richardson’s rationalizations and confessions, but sometimes Wash retreats deep inside.

Richardson does not like the idea of racial slavery, but he is shrewd enough to know that black servitude is too deeply entrenched socially, politically, culturally, psychologically, and economically.  Both Richardson and Wash are thus bound.

They are not the only ones.  Richardson’s daughter, Livia, highly intelligent, is bound by her gender.  William, Richardson’s son, seems to be the only character strong enough to strain his bonds as he marries a woman who is part African American.

Wrinkle provides the reader windows into the lives and workings of a motley crew of people in Wash, making the whole story richer and more satisfying.  Wrinkle provides fascinating insights into her characters and into the Old Southwestern frontier.  Wash is an intriguing character-driven story woven with history and African cultural traditions.  Wrinkle shows slaves and slave owners were constrained, bound together, despite the revolution.  Readers will learn more about the paradox of freedom and slavery in Wash than in any history book because Wrinkle brings it all to life so eloquently and masterfully.

Margaret Wrinkle

Margaret Wrinkle


Filed under book review, books, fiction, historical fiction, history, literary fiction, Southern fiction, Southern writers

Book Review: The Cutting Season by Attica Locke

The Cutting Season by Attica Locke (Harper; 384 pages; $25.99).

            In 2004, African-American author Attica Locke and her husband attended the wedding of an interracial couple at Oak Alley Plantation.  Located in Vacherie, Louisiana, about fifty miles from New Orleans, the beautiful antebellum mansion provided the basis for the fictional “Twelve Oaks” in Gone with the Wind.  Locke and other wedding guests were bused in from New Orleans.  It wasn’t the ride, though, that made Locke uncomfortable.

            “You’re driving through rural, working-class Louisiana poverty,” she told NPR, “and all of a sudden, along the Mississippi, this incredibly majestic house, these beautiful grounds with these arching oak trees, just kind of rises up.  And I felt this tear inside — there’s no way to not feel the beauty of it because it is so stunning. But it also kind of made my stomach turn, because of what it represented.”

            Locke could not decide if having an interracial wedding on this plantation was an act of healing or if they were stomping on history.  She was so emotional she burst into tears.  The writer was certain the event was a metaphor “for where we are as a country, where we’re kind of caught between where we are and where we’re going.”

            Antebellum mansions like Oak Alley dot the Mississippi River Delta landscape of Louisiana and Mississippi.  Women in period dresses greet visitors at the door and guide them on a tour of the house and grounds.  Guests may imbibe in a little mint julep.  Visitors may even see a re-enactment or two.  Slave owners and slaves alike lament the coming of the Yankees.  The “happy darkies” profess their undying love and devotion to their masters.  In these plantations, the myth of “moonlight and magnolias,” long dispelled by historians, still prevails.

            Years later, when Barack Obama was elected President, the feeling she felt at Oak Alley came back to Locke.  The election “changed everything she had been taught about race.” 

This is the premise behind her latest mystery The Cutting Season, this reviewer’s second favorite mystery of the year (behind Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl).

            Swiftly-paced and compellingly readable, The Cutting Season features the thrilling tale of a double murder, centuries apart yet curiously related.  Locke’s whodunit takes the reader on a series of twists and turns.  The plot is unpredictable but always convincing. 

            Locke’s best feature is her ability to link characters to setting.  The story’s main protagonist, Caren, is the manager of fictional “Belle Vie” (“Beautiful Life”) Plantation.  Caren’s ties to Belle Vie are deep: her mother was the cook.  Caren grew up on this plantation.  In fact, she is the “great-great-great-granddaughter of slaves,” slaves who lived and worked at Belle Vie.    

            After Hurricane Katrina destroyed the home of Caren and her daughter, Morgan, they sought refuge at Belle Vie.  They have always felt safe here, among the re-enactors and others who work there.  They are a family.

            Their sense of security vanishes when the body of a cane worker from neighboring Groveland Corporation is discovered on plantation property.  She was murdered.  The killing may be related to the disappearance of Caren’s great-great-great-grandfather, Jason.

            Jason was brought to Belle Vie as a child.  Caren’s mother said that Jason “was a man to be proud of, slave or no slave.”  Jason was “a man who had lived with his head up and his back straight, a man who had lived a life of peace and fidelity…until he went mysteriously missing sometime after the Civil War.”  What happened to Jason was a mystery.  “Some said he had tired of cutting cane and walked out of the fields after the war, leaving a wife and child.  Some said he had problems with drink and women and that’s why he ran.  And still others, like Caren’s mother, thought he had likely met trouble here on the plantation; that he’d died at Belle Vie, and his soul never left the grounds.”  Jason’s ghost was even thought to haunt the slave quarters.

            Caren fears that she and her child may be the killer’s next targets.  Everyone is on edge; no one is safe.  No one can be trusted, not even old friends.  When it is clear the police have the wrong man, Caren must undertake her own investigation, no matter the cost. 

            In addition to the story’s main plot, the double murders, Locke introduces several interesting sub-plots.  Locke illustrates the plight of Hispanic cane workers and shows how powerless and scared they are when facing large companies, the government, and police.  An old romance between Caren and Eric, Morgan’s father, rekindles,  just when he is set to marry someone else.  Donovan, a re-enactor on the plantation, sets out to make a movie in which Jason is a central figure.

            The Cutting Season barely let this reviewer catch her breath.  I was so caught up in the action and mystery that I could not tear myself away from its pages.  The Cutting Season recalls the color and current of the muddy, meandering Mississippi River.  The story is swift; the plot is strong; the characters are murky; and the setting is shadowy. 

            The next time you find yourself near New Orleans or Baton Rouge, take a trip to the real Belle Vie– Oak Alley–the antebellum mansion that so moved Attica Locke. 





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Interview with Kathy Hepinstall

Interview with Kathy Hepinstall, Author of Blue Asylum

Jaime Boler: You grew up in Texas.  Did you always want to be a writer?

Kathy Hepinstall: Yes, I think so, but it took different forms. As a girl, I wrote mostly poems. Later, I wrote short stories and went into advertising writing.  After a few years in that career, I decided I wanted to try a novel.

JB:  In your opinion, what is the most difficult think about being an author?  And what is the most rewarding?

KH: The most difficult thing is navigating the often challenging waters of the business of publishing. The most rewarding is being able to bring a story to life and have it resonate with other people.

JB: Your last novel, Prince of Lost Places, came out in 2003.  What have you been doing since then? 

KH: Mostly freelancing in advertising.  Wrote some more novels, but didn’t success [in] publishing [anything] until Blue Asylum.

JB: How did you come up with the idea for Blue Asylum

KH: I’d been wanting to write a love story set in an insane asylum.  Just really liked all the inherent tensions in those two intersecting realities: Love and Insanity.

JB:  What kind of research did you do for Blue Asylum?

KH: I was on Sanibel Island for six weeks doing research and starting the first draft. I also learned about mental asylums of the day. 

JB:  I have a PhD in American history and wrote a dissertation on slave resistance in Natchez, Mississippi.  I never found any white plantation mistress who ran away with the slaves, but that’s not to say it NEVER happened.  Such a thing would have been deeply buried by the whites.  Did you find anything in your research about white women taking flight with slaves? 

KH: No, that was purely imaginative. But it made me like Iris to think she could do that.

JB: Are any characters in Blue Asylum loosely based on you or people you know? 

KH: Mary, the doctor’s wife, was based on Mary Lincoln. Ambrose was based on someone I loved and still do. And I see Wendell in all good people. 

JB: Do you think there were actual people like Iris who were declared insane and put into asylums who really were not insane?  Perhaps wives put there by their husbands? 

KH: Yes, that came up in my research.  Victorian men would get rid of their wives that way.

JB: Was the water treatment historically accurate?

KH: I’m trying to remember now..I think cold water was used in some supposedly curative way at some point in the history of asylums. But the water treatment also came from a description I read of a plantation owner who would punish his slaves by putting them in a hole and pouring water on them until it became terribly painful. 

JB:  In this novel, you create the quirkiest and most unforgettable characters.  Did their insanity give you license to really play with them, to really make them stand out? 

KH: Yes, that was very liberating creatively, especially with characters like Penelope and Lydia Helms Truman.

JB:  Do you have a favorite character in this book?  (I think mine is Wendell.)

KH: I do love beautiful tortured lamb-saving Wendell. I also like Lydia and, curiously, both the Cowells. 

JB:  In every one of your stories, you manage to provide unexpected twists.  I never see them coming.  How do you always do this?  And how difficult is it? 

KH: Thank you so much. I really like being surprised as a reader, so I try to surprise readers of my novels. Sometimes I wonder, have I given too many clues? Too few? I regret I wasn’t clearer about the ending to The House of Gentle Men. 

JB: What advice would you give anyone working on a first novel? 

KH: Find a really great editor.  That’s really hard to do but it may come as a surprise and be someone you know.  Also, finish it.  Finish even a terrible first draft. Finishing is a good habit to impress upon the brain.

JB:  Who are your favorite authors? 

KH: Toni Morrison, Michael Ondaatje, poets like Lorca and Vallejo.

JB:  Out of all the novels you’ve written, do you have a favorite? 

KH: Absence of Nectar, most likely forever.

JB:  I saw on your blog where you are trying to get Oprah to read your book.  You even left a signed copy of Blue Asylum for her.  Could you talk a little about that? 

KH: I wanted to get Oprah’s attention in a playful, respectful way so a friend of mine and I buried a copy of Blue Asylum in the foothills of Montecito, where she lives, then took out an ad to her in the Montecito Journal with a treasure map.  So far, no response but I understand – people wanting her attention are legion.

JB:  Will you go on a book tour for Blue Asylum?  Which cities will you visit?  Any chance you might stop in Lemuria Books in Jackson, MS? 

KH: I’ve done readings/book parties in Portland, LA, New York, Virginia Beach and will visit San Francisco later in May. Love Lemuria Books. May not be able to get down there this year but some day soon I’d like to return. I’ll always remember their kindness and warmth and humor. 

JB:  What do you hope readers take with them after reading Blue Asylum?

KH: Just some kind of resonance in their own lives, and I hope, a greater love and respect for lunatics and lambs.

JB:  What’s next for you?  Are you working on anything new? 

KH: My sister and I plan to rewrite a novel of ours called Girls of Shiloh, about two sisters who join the Confederate army as men.

JB: Thanks so much, Kathy, for agreeing to answer my questions.  I really appreciate it!

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Book Review: Blue Asylum by Kathy Hepinstall

Blue Asylum by Kathy Hepinstall (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 288 pages; $24).


            Novels are often strong in one or two elements and lacking in others.  Characters may stand out in one book while the plot suffers.  In other tales, the setting might drive the story because there is just no plot at all.  Rarely does one novel feature a triple play, as I call it, where the setting, the characterizations, and the plot are skillfully crafted and masterfully rendered.  Yet, in her fourth novel, and perhaps her best to date, Blue Asylum, Kathy Hepinstall manages to do just that and then some.

Hepinstall previously wrote The House of Gentle Men, which was a finalist for the Penn Faulkner Awards West and an LA Times bestseller.  Her other novels are The Absence of Nectar and Prince of Lost Places.  She has not published a book since 2003 and her storytelling has been deeply missed.

Blue Asylum is well worth the wait.  Hepinstall sets the story during the Civil War in an insane asylum on Sanibel Island.  The beauty of the island starkly contrasts with the horrors of the institution.  Blue water, lapping waves, white sand, and swaying palm trees almost suggest a vacation-like environment.  Yet Sanibel Island is also home to snakes, alligators, sharks, and stingrays.  However, the biggest threat on the island is not the wildlife.

Dr. Henry Cowell and his staff run the lunatic asylum.  Cowell specializes in the madness of women.  And he is certain he can cure his newest ward: Iris Dunleavy.  Cowell is fond of the “water treatment,” a “cure” so painful it might as well be called torture.  He knows all about Iris and feels she needs to be taken down a peg or two, and he is happy to do it.  Cowell promises Iris’s husband that he’s going to make her “well again.”  Iris and Cowell serve as each other’s antagonist.  A battle of wills breaks out between the two.

Iris is the protagonist of Blue Asylum and a worthy one.  Although not a mother, she is a maternal figure.  This maternal instinct gets her into trouble more than once throughout the course of the story.

In fact, that nature is partly to explain why Iris is at the asylum in the first place.  A judge declares her insane, despite her protests to the contrary.  No one will listen to Iris.  She swears adamantly that her only crime is defying her husband, a wealthy Virginia plantation owner: “I am not a lunatic.  I am the victim of a terrible campaign of outright slander by my own husband.”  Her disobedience lands her in the asylum.

Iris’s crime is revolutionary, or at least given the era in which Hepinstall sets the story.  Robert Dunleavy, Iris’s husband, is cruel both to his wife and to his slaves: “He is simply a terrible man, a brutal slave owner, a liar, and a killer.”  When his finances take a turn, he cuts back on what meager medicine and clothing he provides the slaves.  He has the overseer punish them for even the slightest offenses.  The punishment is so severe in one instance that Iris intervenes.  Dunleavy, livid, vows revenge and treats Iris as if she were property.  Iris hates her husband, especially when she catches him with a young slave girl.

Many plantation owners had sexual relations with their female slaves, but not all.  Hepinstall accurately portrays Dunleavy as a man who believed slaves were property, to be bought and sold and punished according to the master’s will and whim.  Hepinstall shows the resentment building and building in Dunleavy’s slaves, who ultimately decide to rebel against him.

The slaves plan to run away.  Flight was perhaps the best way to “stick it” to one’s master.  Since slave owners viewed slaves as property, when a slave ran away, he “stole himself.”  Great expense was involved in tracking down and acquiring escaped slaves.  When Hepinstall tells this part of the story, she gives us historical accuracy, and that is important, even if this is only fiction.  She makes the tale believable and plausible.

That plausibility somewhat lessens when Hepinstall has Iris run away with the slaves.  Her flight and her siding with the slaves to spite her husband is the crime that puts Iris in the asylum.  As I researched slave resistance for my dissertation, I never once came across anything like this.  Nowhere did I find a white plantation mistress running away with her husband’s slaves.  In Hepinstall’s story, Iris runs away because she sees herself as their mother-figure, just as many slave owners viewed themselves as “fathers” to their slaves.  Iris feels responsible, at least in part, for their plight at the hands of her husband.

Yet, who is to say this could not happen?  After all, whites would have covered up such a thing.  Whites would have buried the story of a mistress running away with her slaves so deeply that it would never have been written about.  The mere mention of the account, in the eyes of whites, would put ideas into their slaves’ heads.  Since slaves outnumbered whites in most towns, slave rebellion was a big fear.  If a white mistress ever ran away with her husband’s slaves, it would most likely not be in any historical record.  So while this may not be historically accurate, it is still entirely plausible.  Something like this could have happened.

Iris, then, is not at the asylum because she is crazy.  She is there because she defied her husband.  Other patients at Sanibel Asylum really are there for a reason.  One is Ambrose Weller, former Confederate soldier.  Ambrose fights very real demons as he relives painful memories of the death of his best friend.  Cowell treats Ambrose with laudanum and directs him to think of the color blue in times of distress.  “Blue.  Blue like a marble.  Like cobalt glass…Like ice in a beard…Like the stained glass windows of a church.”  Cowell feels he is making progress with Ambrose, or at least until Iris’s arrival.

Ambrose and Iris spend time together and fall in love.  Theirs is a doomed romance.  Ambrose really does need help; Ambrose really is mad.  Iris, though, does not belong in the asylum and plans to escape.

Hepinstall’s prose is quietly hypnotic as she tells the story from the points of view of Iris, Ambrose, Cowell, and Wendell, Cowell’s son.  Each character has a distinctive voice as he or she battles inner demons.  Hepinstall uses lots of flashbacks, both for effect and to keep the plot suspenseful.  She knows just when to pull back so we anticipate what happens next.

Blue Asylum‘s many characters stand out and benefit from being called crazy.  Lydia Helms Truman has impeccable manners but is fond of swallowing anything from rings to letters to checkers.  Keep your jewelry away from her.  There is also the elderly widow who believes her late husband is still next to her.  She talks to him, kisses him, and even dances with him.  Hepinstall creates a man whose feet feel so heavy they are sometimes frozen in place.

All these mad people even affect the doctor.  His patients and his family drive him crazy.  Wendell, his son, is convinced that he is as mad as the others in the asylum.  The boy gets too attached to patients and is convinced a tragedy that happens to him cleanses away his sins. Mrs. Cowell is addicted to laudanum and crazy-jealous of Iris.   Hepinstall’s characters linger long after the book is closed.

Picturesque setting, memorable characters, and a suspenseful plot characterize Blue Asylum.  If you’ve never read Hepinstall before, let this be your introduction.  She is an author worthy of your attention.


Filed under book review, books, fiction, history, Southern fiction, Southern writers

More with Jonathan Odell

In a New York Times March 13 review of The Healing, author Jonathan Odell was deemed “too white” to have written such a book.  He is a white man writing about black slaves, yet he does not shy away from any subject.  The Healing is set on a Mississippi Delta cotton plantation.  Granada is born a slave, yet the mistress takes a special interest in her since her own daughter died of cholera.  Everything changes on the plantation with the arrival of Polly Shine.  She is a healer, but she is also a slave.  Polly wants Granada to be her apprentice, against the wishes of the mistress.  The acclaimed healer, though, gets her way and stirs up both blacks and whites in The Healing.  Odell creates a character-driven story in which slaves are players and not pawns.  I recommend it for fans of Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and Kathryn Stockett.

I recently interviewed novelist and Mississippi native Jonathan Odell, author of The Healing, for the Mobile Press-Register.  You can read the Q&A here.  The piece has been edited for length.  With the paper’s permission, I would like to share with you what did not make the paper.

JB: What was the most difficult part about writing The Healing?

 JO: Structure. I couldn’t get a handle on it. I tried writing it linearly, going from the death of Amanda Satterfield’s daughter Becky, to bringing up Granada and ending with Gran Gran and Violet. It just didn’t work. The energy, tension was all wrong. Then I tried doing it in flashbacks. That was fatally boring. Then an author friend read it and said, “You know, this is in its essence about story, and the power of story to heal. Why don’t you structure it that way, as a story told by the old woman to the young girl? I knew she was right the moment she said it. When I framed it that way, it worked beautifully. I really liked how it put Gran Gran and Granada right up next to each other, so we can see that it is also Gran Gran who has been wounded and needs healing as well as Violet.

JB: The Healing is amazing and I must ask if you received any rejection letters for your manuscript before it was ultimately given the green light?

JO: It was uniformly rejected when I sent it out in the previous linear form that I mentioned above. I waited another 2 years, discouraged, humiliated. My partner got sick of my depression and told me to get over it. He told me it was a story that needed to be told, I was the only one who could to tell it, so stop feeling sorry for myself and do my job. That’s when I chose 6 of the best writers I knew (including my partner) and gave them a draft and said, I can’t see it, why does this just lay there like a dead fish? Their feedback was not all on target, but opening myself up to the outside world like that, unfroze the book in my own mind, enabling me to see other possibilities.

When I finished the rewrite, literary agent, Marly Rusoff, bless her heart, took it right away. It was so polished by then there was no need for rewrites. Within the month Marly had sold it to Nan Talese.

JB: What is it like working with Talese?

JO: I’m still reeling from that. I’ve talked with her only once, the day she accepted the book. She called and the caller I.D. read, Random House. Trembling I picked up the phone, “Jon, this is Nan.” I don’t remember much after that, except that this literary icon had dialed my number, ON PURPOSE, to rave about something I had written.

My editor is a very talented woman named Ronit Feldman who worked closely and skillfully (and tactfully) with me to get the book ready for market. It was a fun process, and so much different than working with a small press, who had my first book out in four months. Nan bought the book in the fall of 2010, and they have used that time to ready the book, as well as the market for launch. Polly Shine has been very well served.

JB: Do you have any advice for anyone working on a first novel?

 JO: Show your work to others when you are ready, but be VERY careful whom you choose. I rely heavily on other’s impressions during the writing process. But the readers I select know the difference between telling me what they would do if they were writing this novel (not helpful); and telling me what I need to hear to write the story that I’m trying to tell (very rare). They want me to achieve my vision, not help me achieve theirs.

JB: What is your writing process like?  What would a typical day of writing be like for you?  Do you type at a computer or do you write in long-hand first?  Do you need absolute silence?  Do you ever listen to music while you write?

JO: If I’m creating from scratch, the day looks like a lot of research, reading out-of-print books for dialect and phrasing, for attitudes. And then perhaps 2 hours of writing. I’m exhausted after 2 hours of making things up.

But if I’m editing, I can go for 18 hours at a time, day after day. I love editing, probably too much. When language sings, I’m in heaven.  I listen to music without an evocative melody and without understandable words. I love Phillip Glass. Monastery choirs are nice.

Most everything I do is on laptop. No matter how brilliant, my handwriting makes my work look juvenile. That’s very discouraging to me. I look smarter on a computer screen.

JB: Another Mississippian, Jesmyn Ward, won this year’s National Book Award with her novel, Salvage the Bones.  How would you feel if your novel was nominated for any literary awards?

JO: That feels remote at this stage. I used to spend sleepless nights in bed being interviewed by Oprah. That never came to any good so I try not to do that to myself. At this point I’m at that stage of being afraid that I won’t be noticed by critics and then being afraid when they do. The book has been out [since February 21], and I’m feeling a little shell-shocked.

Odell was born and raised in Laurel, Mississippi, and now makes his home in Minnesota.  He is also the author of The View from Delphi.


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