Blount County has a hidden treasure. A woman named Roberta Kells Dorr who, for the past 40 years, has been quietly and diligently writing and publishing novels is an unassuming neighbor and friend to many as she makes her home in Blount County.
Dorr was inspired to write novels that have enjoyed world-wide success by the years she and her late husband, Dr. David Dorr, spent as missionaries in the Middle East.
Dorr didn’t set out to put her experiences into novels. “I didn’t think of it at all as adding to what I could write by going into missions,” she said. “The very fact that you write or paint or do something creative makes your life better no matter where you are.”
It was 1942, and the U.S. had just gone through Pearl Harbor. Dorr said everyone thought we’d be bombed again and that the world was coming to an end. She wondered what she could do to help change the world.
In an effort to answer this question she put aside a promising acting career and, rather than going to New York as her agent suggested, she decided to attend seminary.
“Most seminaries wouldn’t accept women,” she said. “So I went to Louisville where the Baptist women had built House Beautiful. There you took courses at the seminary. I was able to take a lot of courses.”
The courses fueled an interest in missions. “At the seminary, they felt what we could do is invest ourselves in people. If you didn’t change people’s ideas, you didn’t have anything going,” she said.
While in seminary, the young student wrote to a young man from her church named David Dorr who was a radar operator on a B-29 in the Air Corps. “He did 30 missions over Japan and was so impressed that he survived, he felt he should do something with his life,” Dorr said. “We wrote a lot, and I was telling him about the missions courses I was taking.”
More and more Dorr said she was moved by the gospel of love, forgiveness and peace. She said she began thinking, “That’s what I need to do.”
The couple married in 1946 and made plans for a life as missionaries. David was on track to become a preacher but had a hidden love for chemistry which he also considered pursuing. “We talked to people at the mission board who said they didn’t need chemistry teachers but they needed doctors.”
Already an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins, David finished his degree then applied for the graduate program. “No one thought he’d get in to the graduate school but he applied, and he was very honest. He told them he wanted to be a missionary and do something to help people and help them in a place where they wouldn’t get the best medicine,” Dorr said. The admissions board saw in him someone who cared about the people. That was rare and that was what they wanted Dorr said.
He went on to complete his internship and then residency at White Cross Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. It was then that he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease. The couple suffered disappointment when it appeared their dream wouldn’t happen, and the doctors gave him one to five years to live.
David, however, had other ideas. “He just kept on,” Dorr said. The years passed, he became a surgeon and his disease went into remission. Then, finally, the Baptist Mission Board told them they could go to the Middle East.
It was 1959 and the English had just left Gaza. “We were to take over the surgical hospital there,” Dorr said. “So off we went, with four kids, to the Gaza Strip.”
In Gaza, the family settled into a large, rambling house next to the surgical hospital and the refugee camps. “The hospital was built 80 years earlier by the British,” she said. “My Arabic was suited for women because I wasn’t allowed to talk to men, and they couldn’t talk to me. The Palestinians didn’t speak English,” she said.
She set up her home and began home schooling her children. Because she’d ordered so many books, the government feared she was going to start a whole school. “I taught without books because they were held up in Cairo,” she said. Her fifth child was born while they were in Gaza.
Dorr immediately recognized the richness of the culture that surrounded her, and she strove to understand and learn as much as she could about the people, their beliefs and their lives. “I wanted to learn everything I could about those people on the Gaza Strip,” she said. She even helped an unlikely couple get married.
“Ida was from Cairo, and Leuve was from Oslo. The two of them never spoke,” Dorr said, because the culture forbade it, and because they spoke different languages. “Ida was there to be a student nurse. He (Leuve) fell in love at first sight.”
Dorr played the match-maker, telling Ida that Leuve was interested. When Ida expressed an equal interest, Dorr became the go-between, delivering messages between the couple until finally, they were married and Leuve took Ida back to Oslo. The couple has since sent Dorr photos of themselves and their children.
Within a few years the Dorr children began attending boarding school in Alexandria, Egypt. As Dorr visited her children and traveled more, she began to meet a lot of women in polygamous relationships. She saw women living in harems and realized that no one was writing their stories and if they did, the stories weren’t authentic. She befriended many.
“They always wanted you to visit, were very hospitable. So many missionary wives get depressed, lonely. But here I was running around, visiting all these places, relating to people and making friends,” she said.
While Dorr had always been a writer, it was here that her natural curiosity and determination to write “anything” came together.
“When you write, your head is always going in some interesting direction,” she said. She wrote of the issues and people that surrounded her, but because of censorship she couldn’t mail her articles to the U.S. “I wrote articles for Baptist papers about what I saw and what was happening and would send them back with people who’d visit,” she said.
“I was interested in writing the story of women,” she said. The story of David’s wives particularly interested her but she wasn’t allowed to travel to Israel. In fact, they weren’t even allowed to mention Israel.
“I had a book with a Star of David on the cover, and they almost sent us off the Gaza Strip because of it. So you had to be careful,” she said. “But we could fly to Beirut and come down through Jordan and into the old city of Jerusalem. We got to do that kind of thing several times.”
After a furlough in 1964, the family returned to Gaza and traded homes with an evangelical worker. They moved into a cozy cottage and Dorr happily settled into the private, small building behind it and she began to explore her interest in the stories of David’s wives. “That’s where I set up my typewriter and wrote most of ‘Bathsheba,’” she said. “I read Jean Plaidy who wrote the histories of Catherine de Medici, Charles II, Katherine of Aragon and Isabella and Ferdinand. When you read her novels, you saw the history of Europe and digested it easily. I thought that was quite a marvelous thing,” she said. Dorr said she writes historical novels because she’s “fascinated with what really happened to real people.”
In 1967, the Six Day War forced their evacuation to Istanbul. “Then everyone from Gaza was moved to Rome,” she said. Since she had young children, they were moved into the attic of a Baptist girls’ school in Rome. Then they came back to the U.S. for another furlough.
While here, a colleague and family friend in Gaza began making plans to open the first modern hospital in Jibla, a small town in Yemen. “He needed another surgeon but no one wanted to go because their kids would have to go 1,000 miles away to boarding school (in Ethiopia) with no communication, no mail even,” she said.
But, since their children were already used to boarding school and would be with their siblings and the children of close family friends, the Dorrs decided to go to Jibla. They lived in trailers while a prefab hospital was ordered from Norway. After a few months of helping get the hospital open and running, they decided to stay. “Realizing our kids would be with theirs; it was not so terribly bad.” The children of the two families had evolved into a tight-knit group of brothers and sisters which comforted their parents.
The Dorrs lived in or visited such places as the Gaza Strip, Yemen, Egypt, Beirut, Jerusalem and Sinai among others, but it was while visiting their children in Ethiopia that Dorr became inspired by the Queen of Sheba. “Over a period of years we went to historical places in Ethiopia. I really liked it because I was able to do as much research as I could possibly do. I got to see the ruins of the Queen of Sheba’s palace,” she said. “I talked to all and found out the legends and what happened. Ethiopia claims to have the Ark of the Covenant, and I went to a little place where it is. They have it in a little building with a wall around it near the Red Sea in Axum.” Her research paid off and her novel, “The Queen of Sheba,” was published in 1990.
Over their 17 missionary years, the Dorrs traveled back to the U.S. a few times but Dorr suffered from significant back problems which ultimately brought them, and their five children, to America to stay. In 1974 they flew out of Yemen into Beirut where she had back surgery in a Lebanese hospital. “They told me I needed to stop riding on bumpy roads,” she said. Health reasons brought them home but fate brought them to Blount County.
Although they had roots in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., Dr. Dorr had a colleague who, with a group of surgeons, had formed Knoxville Emergency Physician’s Group. “One doctor in the group wanted to go to Zaire for a year so we moved into their house, with all their things, and they went to Zaire. David liked the physician’s group and the ER here. For the first time in his life as a doctor, he got to have time off,” she said. The couple did go back to the Middle East for a little while but Dorr’s back problems ultimately brought them back to the U.S. to stay. “Plus,” she said, “the children were attending area schools like Maryville College and Carson-Newman.”
While the children settled into college life and Dr. Dorr settled in to life at the physician’s group, Dorr’s life as an author began to pick up pace.
She sent her “Bathsheba” manuscript to Catherine Marshall, the author of “Christy” and Leonard LeSourd, then the editor of Guideposts, who had helped form Chosen Books Publishing Company. “After ‘Christy’ everyone wanted to write historical novels but no one could do it because there was too much fact. You have to use the facts but also imagine what it was like,” Dorr said.
They wanted her novel but told her it would have to be cut in half. “All this on a little old typewriter,” she said. “We’d have weekend long consultations. Cut this and cut that.” Ultimately “David and Bathsheba” was published in 1980 and sold over 200,000 copies.
After “Bathsheba” was published, she was invited to speak to the medical auxiliary group in Knoxville about her new book. When they asked if there was anything they could do for her, she said “I was off with all these people who were always talking about the office and medicine. I said I’d like to have a little group of people who talked about what they were writing,” she said. That was the beginning of the Knoxville Writer’s Group that’s still going strong today. “It’s never stopped. Many who first came are still going. It’s a great encouragement for us,” she said.
As Dorr turned the pages of an old notebook filled with faded, typewritten notes and drawings of maps and timelines, her commitment to exhaustive and extensive research became even more apparent. She said the years in the Middle East, the exposure to their culture and the experiences she had while there profoundly influence what she writes.
“When people teach Sunday school, they get excited about a character. They are excited because of how it relates to their life. They have no idea that when you pull out a character there is a lot of culture connected to them. You can’t learn about a person without knowing about their culture and their life,” she said. Dorr says she doesn’t call her writing fiction because “that’s totally made up. The tricky thing is making the culture come out in the interaction of the person.”
Despite living in Blount County, Dorr’s research and writing continue to be inspired by the Middle East. Dr. Dorr passed away in 2000 due to complications from Parkinson’s disease, but still Roberta Dorr has returned to the Middle East several times to do more research and visit three of her children who live in Jerusalem. She has another visit planned for this year. “I hope to get to Antioch also,” she said. “I have a big book of the digs in Antioch and I found where the Jewish Church was. It was exciting to find that,” she said.
Dorr has published six novels and “Alice,” a non fiction account of a Palestinian woman the Dorrs met in Gaza whose faith and prayers impacted the lives of those she touched. Published in 2003, her most recent book, “Honored,” imagines Luke visiting Mary several years after Jesus’ death and currently, she is working on another book about the disciple Luke. Dorr’s books can be found at www.amazon.com, the Blount County Public Library and the Maryville College Library.
Just as her experiences in the Middle East impacted her writing, Dorr also credits her acting and painting backgrounds with her ability to write historical fiction. “Everything I did in the way of acting fits in. We had to get in the mood, think like the person before going on stage. You’re reproducing the person in acting just like you are in writing. If you don’t, you’re doing words you’ve memorized and not connecting with the audience.
“I also painted for a while and you have to notice colors and how things grow and what’s different and you get used to identifying with the fact that this is one way and where you’ve been is another. All these things channel into the idea of a novel,” she said. “To make the person come alive you have to fit him into his world. That is such fun.”