Disappointment rooms -- spaces in attics or basements fashioned to hide mentally or physically handicapped family members -- were a fact of life in the antebellum South.
The idea of such isolated bondage grips us, in both horror and fascination.
Dee Phelps, a long-time surgical nurse of Beaufort, S.C., listened as her mother-in-law told her the "fascinating and sometimes harrowing stories" passed down from her ancestors who once owned a Lowcountry cotton and indigo plantation in Jasper Co., S.C.
Phelps did not consider herself a writer, but the stories she'd heard begged to be told. "The Disappointment Room" (River City, $26.95), in which a conniving mother hides her afflicted son in the attic, an act which affects the next eight generations, is the result of Phelps' perseverance in finally getting the stories on paper.
Pat Conroy calls the novel "haunting and fascinating." In her acknowledgments, Phelps says Conroy's wife, Cassandra King Conroy, "took me under her wing and helped me fly. A better mentor and friend would be hard to find. Thank you for helping me navigate my way around the perplexing world of publishing."
Phelps opens the novel in 1844 and uses as its fictional setting the now privately-owned Coffin Point Plantation in St. Helena Parish, Beaufort, S.C. The original house, no longer standing, was built about 1801 by Boston native Ebenezer Coffin, who married Mary Matthews, whose father gave the couple 1120 acres and 63 slaves.
In 1861, the Coffins, along with other sea island plantation owners, abandoned their homes as Union troops advanced into the Lowcountry.
"The Disappointment Room" recently won The Silver Falchion Award for Best First Novel at ceremonies in Nashville, Tenn.