‘The Belle of Two Arbors’ provides accurate, gripping realism
“The Belle of Two Arbors” is a fictional look at the University of Michigan’s golden age of poetry, when Robert Frost held court on the campus along with Theodore Roethke and W.H. Auden.
Belle, of the title, is a fictional young woman of considerable means. She is a long-distance swimmer, a stand-in mother to her brother Pip, a poetess and a mature, 21-year-old freshman at Michigan in 1921.
First nurtured in the literary arts by her mother, who introduces her to Emily Dickinson, above all, Belle wants to write poetry. But like Dickinson, she hides her poetry away.
At 6 feet tall with sweeping red hair, she cuts quite a figure on campus. She soon comes to the notice of Frost who is in the middle of one of his many forays on campus as a visiting professor.
The two Arbors are Ann Arbor and Glen Arbor where Belle was born and raised near the sweeping dunes. A terrible tragedy changes Belle’s life when her mother drowns. She is forced into becoming a mother to her younger brother and becomes a half-owner of her father’s burgeoning stove business.
Belle leads two lives, spreading her time between two locations and holding her own against male-dominated academia.
While at school, Belle is forced into an all-male atmosphere that debates the importance of rhetoric, composition, creative writing and journalism, and comparing it against academic literature.
“Before 1982 there was no full-time woman faculty member in the U-M English Department,” Dimond said.
While at Michigan, Belle uses her growing importance to help support women’s athletics, especially swimming, while openly confronting one athletic director who believes “the social position of women does not permit any physical exploitation or unladylike competition.’” Dimond also seamlessly shows another side of Belle as she finds a lover, Rabbie, with whom she may or may not end up, because of cultural prejudices disfavoring mixed Catholic-Protestant marriage.
Back in Glen Arbor, Belle enlists a crew of competent managers including David, an Ojibwe Indian and a friend from her youth, to run the stove company. She also throws herself into saving the dunes for future generations while nurturing the nascent tourism industry. She spends freely from her fortune, anonymously supporting a range of philanthropic causes.
Parading through Dimond’s book are a long list of characters from Michigan’s 20th century, including former Gov. Chase Osborn, Lansing’s All-American Harry Kipke, former University of Michigan president Marion LeRoy Burton and the beloved Chris-Craft boat — but it’s the poets that take center stage.
Dimond has diligently researched his 680-page book, enabling him to insert details that help create a believable tale — especially about Frost. He pulls no punches describing the poet’s challenged, turbulent life.
Dimond served as a special assistant composed for President Bill Clinton on economic policy and litigated numerous major civil rights cases. He said he was drawn to Frost when he read his famous poem “The Gift Outright,” at President John Kennedy’s Inauguration in 1962.
“If you read it today and compare it to what is going on in the country, Frost makes the point of what poets are about — to question power,” Dimond said.
Dimond said he tried several outlets for writing before “Belle,” but he was not happy with the results until this book.
“I have always been a history buff, and I try to tell the stories of the two Arbors through the eyes of Belle,” he said. “It was a labor of love.”
That saw him ensconced in quiet archives, researching the overlapping lives of Frost, Roethke and Auden.
Through Belle’s eyes, we learn about both Frost’s and Roethke’s tennis game and Roethke’s early penchant for tipping a flask. Cleverly, both Frost and Roethke become guests at Belle’s mansion in Ann Arbor and the Glen Arbor home.
The book also interweaves the poetry of Martha Buhr Grimes, who mimics Belle’s poetic voice, helping to deepen the reader’s understanding of her character.
The novel is a sweeping historical look at two-thirds of America’s 20th century through the eyes of Belle and her poetry and her effort to keep her poetic sense of life against the backdrop of the Roaring ‘20s, the Great Depression, World War II and the post-war boom.
“Paul Dimond presents ‘The Belle of Two Arbors” Thursday, Aug. 17 7 p.m.
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