Tag Archives: Virginia

Book Review: The House Girl by Tara Conklin

The House Girl by Tara Conklin (William Morrow; 384 pages; $25.99).


            Tara Conklin knows how to open a story.  “Mister hit Josephine with the palm of his hand across her left cheek and it was then she knew she would run,” Conklin writes in her passionate and politically charged debut The House Girl.  Reading the novel’s opening line, I feel the sting of the blow just as Josephine does.  “Today was the last day, there would be no others,” Josephine vows.  The urge hits me to help her escape, but I cannot aid her in flight; I am just a reader, after all.  And, just like that, Conklin has her audience transfixed.  Josephine’s well-being is of utmost concern.

When was the last time you read a story like that?  A story that made you actually care about what happened to one of its characters to such an extent that you bit your fingernails to the quick and let the world pass you by until you knew the fate of the protagonist?  Conklin’s novel is that tale, a book that will keep readers up all night just to learn what becomes of Josephine, who is, for me, the heart of The House Girl.

The House Girl is a remarkable story that successfully intertwines the lives of two very different women, separated by circumstances and by the passage of time.

In 2004, Lina Sparrow is a young, driven, first-year associate at a prestigious New York City law firm.  She is given a high-profile assignment to find the perfect plaintiff in an unprecedented historic lawsuit seeking reparations for the descendants of African American slaves.  Trillions of dollars are at stake, not to mention Lina’s reputation, as she sets out to find a picture-perfect candidate for the class-action suit.

In 1852, Josephine is a house slave in Virginia.  At the tender age of seventeen, she serves the Bell family, owners of a tobacco plantation.  Josephine has already escaped once before and paid a very high price for running away.  Despite physical punishment and the emotional toll that enslavement has inflicted upon her body and her psyche, Josephine is determined to escape to the North.  She seeks only to be her own mistress.

These two disparate storylines intersect when Lina discusses the case with her father, Oscar, a famous artist, who gives her a lead.  The art world, Oscar says, is abuzz over a controversy surrounding the paintings of Lu Anne Bell, an antebellum artist who is well-known for works that featured her slaves.  Art historians and collectors, however, question the authenticity of the artworks; they do not believe Bell painted a number of the canvases.  Many believe her house slave, Josephine, was the actual artist.

You can see the wheels turning inside Lina’s head when she hears the story.  Josephine’s descendant, Lina believes, will be the perfect plaintiff.  The question is: what happened to Josephine?  Did she escape?  Did she have any children?

Lina sets out on a quest and travels to what remains of the Bell property in Virginia, now home to an archive.  There, she painstakingly combs through letters, plantation records, receipts, and diaries in hopes of discovering Josephine’s fate.

Curiously, Lina’s dogged pursuit changes her own life.  Josephine’s journey acts as the catalyst Lina needs to question her own identity and her history.  Because Conklin writes the story with such immediacy, we feel as if we have tagged along with Lina on her exploration.  The fates of both “house” girls matter deeply to us.

The House Girl carries enormous appeal as a crossover novel.  Conklin combines mystery, historical fiction, and art history with a little romance.  The real strength of The House Girl lies in Conklin’s remarkable ability to make the past come alive accurately and acutely.  Josephine’s world is beautifully and painfully rendered, and the horrifying tragedies her character endures are entirely plausible.  Conklin provides a stunning glimpse into Josephine’s life, and readers will never forget this young, courageous slave girl.

Conklin leaves us with a provocative and potentially controversial topic: slavery reparations.  Who should be compensated?  Who is a rightful descendant and who is not?

Marie Claire Magazine calls The House Girl “THE book-club book of 2013,” and I wholeheartedly agree.  Conklin has created two extraordinary, unforgettable women in Josephine and Lina.  It is Josephine, however, who will steal your heart and not let go.  You will want to spirit her away, but you are powerless until the very last page.  Conklin’s historical debut is a poignant masterpiece.

Look what tops the Indie Next list for February 2013!

Look what tops the Indie Next list for February 2013!

The Author

The Author


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

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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Filed under author interviews, fiction, history, Lemuria Books

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