After I reviewed Ellen Prentiss Campbell’s excellent short story collection Contents Under Pressure this winter, we struck up a friendly correspondence via email, and so I think writing a straightforward review of her first novel,The Bowl with Gold Seams,* would fall into an ethical gray area.
However, I very much enjoyed the book, so instead, here are:
5 Reasons I’m Glad I Read The Bowl with Gold Seams
- The novel deals with difficult ethical dilemmas: Hazel Shaw, who narrates The Bowl with Gold Seams from the late 1980s, struggles to discern the right path forward when faced with accusations against one of the teachers at the boarding school she leads. As she ponders her choices, she encounters a figure from her past. When she was young woman, she worked as a secretary at a local hotel when it served as a detainment center for diplomatic prisoners (more on this below). She forged relationships with some of the “guests” while simultaneously processing her grief from a series of personal losses, leading to questions about honor, justice, and the shared experience of humanity.
- I learned something: Most of the narrative is set in Pennsylvania, at the Bedford Springs Hotel, which during the Second World War briefly became the detainment center for the Japanese ambassador to Germany (captured when the Allies took Berlin) along with his family and staff. I didn’t know that hotels served as (effectively) prisons during the war, while I’ve read about the shameful internment of Japanese Americans and about prisoner-of-war camps, I hadn’t given much thought to the fate of diplomatic prisoners until now.
- The writing is lovely: Ms. Campbell is a gifted storyteller, as I noted in my review of Contents Under Pressure, and I admired her portrait of the bright, strong, vulnerable Hazel, an observant and self-reflective narrator (“She loved him, I believe, but my father was married to his job, and in some quiet way, still married to my mother. I understand how that can be.”).
- It made me want to learn more about Quakers: Hazel and her father, the town jailer, are Quakers, and the school Hazel runs as an adult is a Quaker school. I found their methods and customs fascinating, so now I’m itching to read some good nonfiction about the Religious Society of Friends. Any recommendations?
- I loved the way it plays with tropes: The Bowl with Gold Seams is a bildungsroman, but it’s also deeply engaged with how we continue to form our moral selves as adults. It’s a novel about the home front in World War II, but then brings the war to the home front with the introduction of the hotel as prison.
The Bowl with Gold Seams is available from Apprentice House, a small press based in Maryland.
[Readers, I’m curious: What do you think of this format for the occasional recommendation, as opposed to a standard review?]
*I received a copy of this book from the author for review consideration, which did not affect the content of this post.
19 thoughts on “5 Reasons I’m Glad I Read Ellen Prentiss Campbell’s The Bowl with Gold Seams”
I like this format–I’ve seen a variation on it on Eve’s Alexandria, where Victoria wrote Robertson Davies an open letter telling him why she enjoyed his book so much (I think it was Tempest-Tost that she read). It’s fun and personal and engaging; I’d say carry on!
Ooh, I do love open letters . . . and Robertson Davies!
I liked this approach, too. Sometimes I just want a reviewer to get down to his or her opinion.
bildungsroman – I had to look it up.
It’s Mom’s least favorite genre . . .
Bildungsroman: one of my favorite genres! I like both formats. Carolyn, your writing has such a lively, distinctive voice– I can hear your personality in every review. Just such a pleasure to read your posts!
Thank you so much AJ!
Bildungsroman — the only word I ever learned in German. Also the worst form of storytelling ever, particularly when it’s the coming-of-age story of a young man. Ugh – boring boring boring. Having said that, the format of this review is fine – a nice change.
Hey, you like Jane Eyre and Little Women—bildungsromans both.
I like any way of writing a review. I find that sometimes the books I read are easier to talk about in list form, and some are easier to talk about in paragraphs. Maybe it’s the same for others.
I’m also fascinated by Quakers (and any other religious group, actually). But I don’t have any non-fiction books about Quakers to recommend. I will have to check back later to see if anyone else does!
You might like A Measure of Light by Beth Powning; a fictional account that sticks as close to fact as possible about Mary Dyer.
Now that novel sounds EXCELLENT! I can always count on you for great CanLit, Naomi!
I hope you can find it!
Ugh, my library system only has it in e-book format . . . but I’m going to remember it when my birthday rolls around, and keep an eye out for it at bookstores.
Beth Powning lives in New Brunswick and has ties to New England, so I would imagine that it would be around there somewhere!
I love this format! Because we can easily get book summaries from many sources, I’m always interested in a blogger’s personal experience with a book. We learn a little about the book, a little about the blogger…And this book sounds lovely! I also love how you ended up having a nice correspondence with the author 🙂
An interesting introduction to Friends (Quakers) is A Quaker Book of Wisdom: Life Lessons In Simplicity, Service, And Common Sense by Robert Lawrence Smith. Who (just for you trivia fans) also served as a Trustee of Sandy Spring Friends School where the author Ellen Prentiss Campbell was a student and current Trustee.
Thank you for the recommendation, Howard!