What dark family secrets were hidden in the backwoods Ozark community of Mulberry Valley? And what lessons would be gleaned from them?
Writing under the pen name of Tess Weston, Blue Springs resident Doris Helverson brings these secrets to life in her first novel, “Life in Mulberry Valley,” which traces the challenges of growing up in a dysfunctional family, where hardships, romance and murder were intertwined in secrecy.
Based on “some true events and a big imagination,” Tess wrote the 315-page soft-cover novel as though her mother, who is called Nora in the novel, was speaking. She also is the source of most of the content, some of which is humorous.
Though the novel covers the entire impoverished northern Arkansas valley during the 1940s and ‘50s, the story focuses on the family home, which Tess says was an unpleasant place for her and her three siblings to live.
“It was very hostile,” she says, recalling her father was insanely jealous of her mother and threatened to kill his family one night. “It was bad.”
However, what happened inside and around this “place” was a family secret, never to be told to anyone. Nora and the children were sworn to secrecy.
“Everyone thought we had the perfect little family,” Tess recalls, not knowing her irate father may have been involved in the murder of another irate man in the valley.
“If something got in his way, he wanted to handle it with anger,” Tess says of her “narcissist” father who drove a school bus. “He could laugh with high school girls and teachers all the way home, but when he walked into his home with my mom, all the laughing stopped. We just stood by and watched. We didn’t say anything.”
It didn’t take long for Tess to discover she and her sisters were different than most of the girls attending Deer (Ark.) High School. Dating, being a cheerleader and having dolls were forbidden.
What they did have, Tess says, was their father’s protection.
“Dad kept everything we were doing quiet,” she says, explaining he was a womanizer and “protected us girls from any man that might treat us like he was treating women. So that is when I came (to Kansas City) and made the highway my home.”
Before leaving for northwest Missouri with five new dresses and a pair of heels, 17-year-old Tess knew she could survive outside the valley on her own because she excelled in writing.
“I always knew I could write in high school,” she says, recalling a teacher once accused her of copying an essay she had submitted. “You copied this word for word out of a book,” he says to Tess, adding: “If you could write like this, you would be famous.”
Tess never forgot about being called a plagiarist. So when the wife of that teacher purchased a copy of her novel, Tess autographed it and wrote: “When your husband told me that I copied a story, I knew from that point on I could write.”
This intriguing novel might never have been written had Nora not shared her secretive life with her daughter just before she died. With Tess listening to every word, Nora reveals what her youngest daughter already knew: her parents never loved each other. What Tess didn’t know was that her parents were married after Noah’s “first love,” Claude, went to Chicago to find work. Nora waited years for him to return and marry her. But he never came back. His involvement in a fatal barroom fight resulted in a 20-year prison sentence.
Tess says Nora died knowing Claude loved her dearly. So much, in fact, that he returned to the valley after his prison stint searching for the love of his life. But he was too late. Nora already had a family.
After hearing Nora tell the secrets that had kept her heart in bondage for more than 60 years, Tess thought: “This needs to be a book. This needs to be told.”
The book, which took six years to research and write, was published in mid-May of this year. It was written, Tess says, to show that a real home needs love.
“We never heard from an aunt or uncle or anybody,” she says. We never had a hug and never heard the words, ‘I love you.’ I mean it was just hostile (at home) all the time.”
One of many things Tess learned in writing the book was that most daughters marry a big part of their fathers, because that is (who) they are used to seeing.
“When I came up here, my first husband was abusive and my father (figure),” Tess recalls, noting her three children grew up getting the same treatment as she did. “I liked the wild-looking guy who had nothing. I liked the ones that drank and smoked. And this was my dad.”
Tess says the whole point of her book is “turning houses into homes.”
“A house can be any structure, but a home takes effort,” she says, explaining that when you move on, there is no limit to what you can do.
“I designed the two Melton houses, I battled cancer and I battled a bad marriage and survived. I feel like being happy, and you stay happy with good friends laughing a lot.”
Tess plans to stay busy in the weeks ahead promoting her book dedicated “to all the children who grew up in Mulberry Valley that continue to love each other unconditionally.”
As for Tess’ dad, who was so into himself, he mellowed as his grandchildren came into his life. And at age 50, “He recaptured his family and turned his house into a home by showing love.”
On Saturday, Sept. 28, Tess will introduce her novel, which sells for $15, at a book-signing from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Price Chopper North, Blue Springs.
She also will be at the following locations in November:
• Real Jalisco Mexican Cuisine, 11:30-1:30 p.m., Nov. 12.
• US Bank, 3640 S. Noland Road, Independence, 9:30-11:30 a.m., Nov. 16.
• Hereford House, 19721 E. Jackson Drive, Independence, 5-7:30 p.m., Nov. 17.
The novel, which may be ordered on Amazon.com or from Tess Weston Publications, P.O. Box 263, Blue Springs, 64013 by enclosing $19.95. For each book purchased, Tess is donating $1 to Hope House in Nora’s honor.
Retired community news reporter Frank Haight Jr. writes this column for The Examiner. You can leave a message for him at 816-350-6363.