"The Belle of Two Arbors" is a historical novel that's heavy on research
“Epic” is not a word to be thrown about lightly, especially in the literary world. But Paul Dimond’s gorgeous historical novel The Belle of Two Arbors, which details the towns of Glen Arbor, Ann Arbor, and a lifetime that spans decades, should at least be under consideration to be called as such.
Dimond graduated from the University of Michigan Law School in 1969 and enjoyed a long career as an attorney (including a stint as Special Assistant to President Clinton for Economic Policy) and is the author of three books on law and policy. He credits the Ann Arbor District Library and the Bentley Historical Library for helping him research The Belle of Two Arbors, and he'll give a talk at AADL's downtown branch about researching the novel on Wednesday, September 13, at 7 pm. He will also be at The Henry Ford on Thursday, September 14, from 6:30-9:30 pm to talk about turning the Frost house into a living center for innovation and the creation of poetry. Dimond and book contributor Martha Buhr Grimes will be at Literati on Monday, August 14, at 7 pm to discuss The Belle of Two Arbors.
The titular Belle is born at the turn of the century in the picturesque hamlet of Glen Arbor. Twenty-one years later, she travels to Ann Arbor to attend the University of Michigan and study creative writing and poetry. While this may seem unremarkable these days, it was significant in 1921 as no female professors taught in the Literature, Science and the Arts (LS&A) program. In the book, the creatives -- the journalists, the poets, the creative writers -- attend class on the “wrong side of State Street” in a rundown building while the “scholars” and academics enjoy life on the Quad. And at a time when women only just won the right to vote, Belle contends with misogyny -- until she meets an ally by the name of Robert Frost.
Dimond, a longtime admirer of Frost, says that President Burton brought the poet to the university to try to elevate poetry at the LS&A. “Burton felt there was room for creatives and innovators and so he brought Frost as a one-year fellow and kept him on after. At the time, English literature dominated, poets and women were looked down upon ... and Belle was both! Frost is her ally in attempting to improve the image of creative writers.”
Even after President Burton passes away and Frost leaves the university, our heroine keeps on trying and makes some progress for poets and writers, both female and male. (It should be noted that the English department did not have a full time, tenured female professor until 1982.)
The book details Belle’s time at the university and her return home to Glen Arbor where she encounters more sexism and confronts the tension about how to make a living in a picturesque place while keeping that place beautiful. Readers meet her partner, David Ahgosa, a man who is Obijwe, along with her stargazing brother, Pip, and even the real-life woman who was the first female lawyer in Leelanau county.
Dimond began writing the book about 10 years ago “and seriously writing it about seven years ago,” but the actual genesis for the book may have happened decades ago. While at Amherst College in 1963, Dimond watched President Kennedy speak about poetry and its effects on American politics as the president dedicated the Robert Frost Library. This experience stuck with the author throughout his life, particularly while he worked on a romance novel. “I read all of the biographies of Frost and Emily Dickinson during that (writing) process. When I started Belle, I knew it would include poetry and then I made up my mind that we would need some sort of connection between the two poets, so I had Belle’s mother read her Dickinson poems. Then I knew I wanted a female poet to act as the voice of Belle.”
This led Dimond to contact a friend he had known since junior high, Martha Buhr Grimes. “Marty taught and wrote poetry at Greenhills for years. About three years into the writing of this book, when I got serious about it, I approached her and she said yes.”
This sweeping novel tracks Belle as she goes through major historical events and makes some changes in her own life and in history. “I believed very much when President Kennedy said that an individual can change history, but you can’t change it all," Dimond says. "So when I put Belle into a situation, I had to figure out if it would be authentic for her to really change history or if she would just confront it ... maybe make a little bit of progress even though she didn’t 'win' the battle.
"For example, Belle is a marathon swimmer but when she goes to U-M, there isn’t even a real pool for her to use," Diamond says. "Only when she dates the captain of the men’s swim team does she get permission to sneak in and swim -- but that only changed for her and not for everyone. ... Even though she doesn’t win that 'battle,' she keeps trying her whole life to fight against the message that competitive sports are bad for women.”
Intertwined with Dimond’s gorgeous prose are Grimes’ enchanting poems. "Marty’s poems have this ability to capture the movement and grace and changing of the seasons so it paints the pictures for readers,” he said. Together, their words bring our beautiful Arbors to life. “(The book) features striking places where life unfolds for the characters," Dimond says. "When Belle swims from Sleeping Bear Point to South Manitou, you are there with her as she sees the beauty of the weather and the storms.”
Ultimately, Dimond hopes that readers will learn something from Belle’s story and that is to “never give up! Even if you don’t win the 'battle' -- keep trying and keep plugging along.”
Patti F. Smith is a special education teacher and writer who lives in Ann Arbor with her husband and cat.
Paul Dimond and Marty Grimes will discuss and sign The Belle of Two Arbors at Literati on Monday, August 14, at 7 pm. Dimond will also give a talk at AADL's downtown branch on Wednesday, September 13, at 7 pm about researching the novel. He will also be at The Henry Ford on Thursday, September 14, from 6:30-9:30 pm to talk about turning the Frost house into a living center for innovation and the creation of poetry.