Disappointment rooms were sad facts of life in the antebellum South. These attics, basements or purposefully modified rooms were used to keep physically or mentally handicapped family members out of public view.
Beaufort author Dee Phelps first heard the term from her mother-in-law, who was telling a story about her family's cotton and indigo plantations before the Civil War. The plantation stories had been passed down through generations, and the one about the disappointment room stuck with Phelps. She was a surgical nurse at the time and not a writer, so it would be years before Phelps would do anything more than idly think about such morose confinements.
It was only after Phelps' life took a sharp turn, following the sudden death of her husband 10 years ago, that she decided to give writing a try.
"I'd love to tell you I was always writing or always had a dream of writing, but that would be a big fib," Phelps said. Knowing she was way out of her league, she returned to school and got a master's degree in writing.
She did some traveling and some journalism work, but her mother-in-law's story was shouting to be written. So began Phelps' first book.
In "The Disappointment Room," Phelps weaves a rich tale beginning in 1884 on fictional version of the St. Helena Island plantation Coffin Point, where the depraved plantation owner's wife hides her deaf son in a secret attic room. With only the black house maid and her daughter as companions, Charles Knight grows up isolated and lonely, until he is able to escape the confines of the disappointment room. Set during the Civil War and in present day, Phelps' Lowcountry-themed saga is infused with the stories of Gullah culture and voodoo, and includes local sights and sounds that will be familiar to Beaufortonians.
The book has received positive reviews and has also been endorsed by fellow Lowcountry author Pat Conroy, who called it a "haunting and fascinating first novel." Conroy's wife, Cassandra King, was a mentor to Phelps during the writing and editing process.
"She's been a wonderful friend," Phelps said of King. "She really guided me through the maze of the publishing world."
Phelps already has a sequel in the works with ideas for a trilogy. After her book tour, she plans to rent an apartment in Paris for six months to write.
"Who would have thought that a local girl, a nurse, a mom and a grandma would write a really good book?" Phelps said. "It surprised the heck out of me."
Follow reporter Erin Shaw at twitter.com/IPBG_ErinShaw.