Born at the turn of the twentieth century in Glen Arbor, near the dunes of Northern Michigan, young Belle is the first child of a gruff stove works boss and a crippled mother who weaned Belle on the verse of Emily Dickenson. When a natural disaster results in her mother’s death and nearly takes the life of her younger brother Pip, Belle creates a fierce, almost ecstatic farewell song. Thus begins her journey to compose a perfect Goodbye to Mama.
At 21, Belle ventures south to Ann Arbor for university, with teenaged Pip in tow. There, she befriends Robert Frost, Ted Roethke and Wystan Auden and finds that her poetry stands alongside theirs, and even with that of her hero, Dickinson. Her lyrics capture the sounds, sights, and rhythms of the changing seasons in the northern forests, amidst the rolling dunes by the shores of the Great Lake.
Despite the peace she finds, Belle also struggles in both homes. Up north, she battles her father who thinks a woman can’t run the family business; and clashes against developers who would scar the natural landscape. In Ann Arbor, she challenges the status quo of academic pedants and chauvinists.
Belle’s narrative brings these two places to life in their historic context: a growing Midwestern town driven by a public university, striving for greatness; and a rural peninsula seeking prosperity while preserving its natural heritage. Through the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, World War II, and the Post-War Boom, Belle’s story is hard to put down. Her voice and songs will be even harder to forget.
“The Belle of Two Arbors is a beguiling story about a talented woman from the back of beyond who dares to establish her own identity. Capturing the upper reaches of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, Dimond creates a new American fable that, like the great novels of Willa Cather, both lacerates and heals: An ingenious feat of fictional biography.” –Theodore Rosengarten, National Book Award All God’s Children: The Life of Nate Shaw and MacArthur Fellow
“Paul Dimond’s Belle of Two Arbors is historical fiction at its most informative and engaging. Belle is poet, protectress, matriarch and muse, whether advocating for a more inclusive University in Ann Arbor or promoting the preservation of America’s premier national lakeshore in Glen Arbor. Fans of the poets Frost, Roethke, Auden and Dickinson are in for a treat: Belle weaves their histories in Michigan and the legacies of Dickinson and Frost in Amherst expertly with the fictional characters. A treasure of a read!” –Barbara Stark-Nemon, author of award-winning historical novel, Even in Darkness
“Dimond imagines the intertwined lives of literary giants in a saga as evocative as Faulkner, with plot lines as cracking as Hemingway’s short stories in Michigan’s northern woods. Belle’s bravery and artistic consciousness are an inspiration.” –John Dempsey, Chair Michigan Historical Commission and co-author Michigan Notable Book Award Ink Trails: Michigan’s Famous and Forgotten Authors
“In the company of Paul Dimond’s extraordinary Belle, we witness the turbulence of a rapidly changing America in the first half of the 20th century. In her roles as poet, entrepreneur, philanthropist, and conservation leader, Belle interacts with a well-realized cast of characters, both imagined and real, most notably the poet Robert Frost. In this full and searching ‘portrait of a lady,’ Dimond renders the opportunities and obstacles that shape Belle’s story in such a way as to remind us that her world is also ours in the making.” –Donald Sheehy, Ed. The Letters of Robert Frost. Vols. 1–2
Belle has grown up in the wilds of Northern Michigan in Anne Arbor at the turn of the century. She loves going for long swims in the lake, hiking along the dunes and composing poetry. Young Belle became the caregiver to her younger brother Pip and her mother after Pip's birth took it's toll. Lovingly deemed Marmie by her brother, Belle continued her caretaker roll as her father ran the family stove business. After Belle's mother dies in a tragic accident, Belle becomes more involved in the family business, continues to care for her mother and begins the task of saying goodbye to her mother through poetry. At 21, Belle finally ventures off to college in Ann Arbor where she meets those who will become some of the most influential poets of the day. More importantly, she learns that her poetry stands up against the greats. While navigating college Belle still has a hand in her family business and assists Pip as he becomes an adult.
The Belle of Two Arbors is an epic tome that stretches US history through Belle's eyes from 1913 to 1953. Though Belle is fictional, her story shines light on many events in US history and is interwoven with the stories of poets, scholars and athletes who defined the time. Belle's character is immediately defined as strong, intelligent and sensitive. She is the original sandwich generation caretaker, expected to care for a parent and a child while still coming into her own. From the moment of her mother's death, I knew Belle would prove to be a force to be reckoned with. She proves this time and time again as she fights for women's rights, reproductive care, indigenous rights, equal rights and environmental conservation.
The writing in The Belle of Two Arbors is impressive; to carry me through several decades in almost 700 pages, Belle's story captivated and intrigued. In partnership with the poetry, the words painted a landscape and evoked strong feelings of love, loss and natural beauty. I truly did feel that the poetry was on par with the writers of the time.
Most importantly, for me, the history was brought alive. Through Belle and her real life people that have been entwined into her life I was able to get a glimpse into to life of Robert Frost and the creation of some of his poetry, a young Theodore Roethke and his troubled but inspirational journey, and Gertrude Ederle and her triumphs as the first female swimmer to cross the English Channel. Through time, I also witnessed Belle's triumphs through the Great Depression and World War II. Throughout everything, Belle's story reminds us that we are the greatest tool to shape the world around us.
This book was received for free in return for an honest review.
About the Author:
Since birth Paul Dimond has shared his time between Ann Arbor, home of the University of Michigan, and Glen Arbor amidst Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in northern Michigan.
Prior to researching and writing The Belle of Two Arbors, Paul Dimond served as the Director of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, tried several major race case that divided the U.S. Supreme Court and served as the Special Assistant to President Clinton for Economic Policy. He has also practiced law, chaired a national real estate firm and continues to spend his time between the two Arbors. He is an alumni of Amherst College and the University of Michigan Law School. Visit his Website.