An excerpt from Paul Dimond’s in-depth interview with Jorie from Jorie Loves a Story: Conversations with the Bookish, June 8, 2017.
Q: How did you initially create the capstone of Belle coming full circle in her life from her early tragic loss of her mother to how she defined her life through the adversities of her life and of History's?
A: I went away to college in Amherst from 1962 to 1966, where I learned more about the two great American poets I had studied briefly in English classes growing up in Ann Arbor, Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost. After Law School back home and several good careers, I turned in my seventh decade to writing fiction, including a historical novel: the two Amherst poets beckoned. Emily Dickinson lived in the family Homestead from her birth in 1830 to her death in 1886 and left more than 1800 unpublished poems there. Robert Frost, a college drop-out, joined the faculty of Amherst College in 1917 at age 43; despite leaving 4 times, he always came back to his academic home for the next 45 years. During his long life, Frost campaigned for his poetry at more than 1,000 public readings and talks; won the most ever Pulitzer Prizes, four; and read the first poem at a Presidential Inauguration. In 1892, Frost discovered Dickinson’s first series of published poems. Despite their long associations with Amherst, few other connections linked these two great American poets, except for the irony that most of their archives escaped the College. I therefore determined to write a novel to link Dickinson and Frost through a woman poet from yet another generation, born on December 30, 1899.
I grew up in Ann Arbor with the University of Michigan and summered in Glen Arbor amidst the Sleeping Bear dunes bay, and shore. They became the two settings to nurture and challenge Belle, her brother, their family and friends. At her invalid mother’s knee, Belle learned to love Emily Dickinson’s odd poems and to compose her own “Up North” songs. On her Mama’s tragic drowning in the Great Lake on January 4, 1913, in the opening scene of the novel, the 13-year-old Belle must swim her 6-year-old brother Pip she helped raise to shore. Late that night, a short, wild poem burst forth that captured one aspect of Belle’s several roiling emotions: the strange ecstasy she felt when the deep waters of the bay buoyed her up while swimming her little charge to safety.
Your lips are
flowing over my
hills and valleys
cooling the red heat
of my Passion—
soothing summer balm
after the wintry storm—
The poem incorporated the Dickinson style her Mama helped instill. Belle hid it with her other draft songs in her mother’s chest in the attic of their family home. For the next two decades, she kept trying to compose a better goodbye for her mother.
Only at age 21 will the headstrong Belle be able to fledge her Glen Arbor nest for the big university downstate. There, she met Frost and grew over time from his student acolyte to lifelong friend, colleague and correspondent. In the fall of 1921 when Frost heard Belle say her second poem of remembrance for her mother — “Mary Bell’s Death” — he exclaimed, “It sounds a good song, but, good Lord, is it poetry?” Frost encouraged Belle to keep trying. She did for another ten years, until she wrote a more compelling elegy to lock away, but not before Frost honored her at Michigan’s first Hopwood Creative Writing Awards ceremony for her poem:
Goodbye to Mama
water below ice
spilling from our fishing hole—
sly silence—and then—
one long lonely Crack!
our fishing shanty’s heaving sigh—
spinning silver shards—
brother ‘neath my arm—
her gloved hand waving toward shore:
Mama’s gray goodbye—
frozen arm flailing
reaching for life, pumping hard
through unforgiving gray shock—
now stroking steady
in peaceful rhythmic splendor:
lake lips caressing
the hills and valleys
of my cold suffering soul—
O! Blue Salvation…
While Frost (and her two other great poet friends Roethke and Auden) moved on, the more private Belle remained tethered to her two safer arbors. With her brother Pip and their Ojibwe friend David, Belle struggled to protect the sacred Sleeping Bear and her Great Lake waters while expanding their family enterprises. In Ann Arbor, Belle, her brother, and their friends challenged the more prejudiced academic pedants who sought to keep creative writers, inventors, the deaf, women, and other minorities down while Michigan worked to become a great national university. Through the roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, World War II and the post-War Industrial Boom, Belle wrote her story and poems as the link between the changing times, Dickinson and Frost, and the forces sweeping the globe and her two arbors.
When a terminal ovarian cancer struck Belle in the spring of 1953, she took to her bed in Ann Arbor and told her family and friends just to leave her alone. Until the niece she raised as if her daughter with Pip in their two family homes shared Emily Dickinson’s poem, “’Hope is the thing with feathers.” The family matriarch soon determined to get out of bed, to live life and to settle her accounts before she died. On her last day at her cottage up north, Belle gave the locked chest with her hundreds of poems, more letters, and the narrative of her life to David’s albino daughter, Angel, in trust for Ruthie. Belle added a sealed letter of instructions for Ruthie.
After twenty-five years, Angel finally could share this treasure trove: only then, will Ruthie unlock Belle’s story and poems for all to read and hear.