5 Reasons I’m Glad I Read Ellen Prentiss Campbell’s The Bowl with Gold Seams

IMG_6764After 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
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.”).
  4. 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?
  5. 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.

Recommended Reading: Contents Under Pressure, by Ellen Prentiss Campbell

IMG_5925A woman facing an unplanned pregnancy while struggling with her relationship with her own parents; a marine biologist who desperately wishes to become a fish; an older woman bidding her beloved country inn farewell; a young mother grieving the loss of her youngest son; wives contemplating the possible ends of their marriages; a little girl desperate to learn how to ride a bicycle to please her institutionalized father: these are some of the characters in Ellen Prentiss Campbell’s exquisite book of short stories, Contents Under Pressure*.

In each of the eleven stories that make up this slim volume, Ms. Campbell balances precise description with unspoken tension; the result is stories that are spellbinding in their realism.

In “Depth Perception,” from which the collection’s title phrase is drawn, a young woman struggles to find the right time to tell her partner that she is unexpectedly pregnant; meanwhile, her adoptive parents’ marriage is a quiet shambles. “Lily operated like a seismograph sensing the shifting plates beneath the surface of her parents’ relationship,” Ms. Campbell writes.

Fractured or troubled marriages appear in several other stores, like “Peripheral Vision,” in which a couple dresses as Jack and Jackie Kennedy for a Washington, DC Halloween party. Behind her mask, Meg wonders if she should leave her husband, and an encounter with a fortune teller doesn’t clarify matters.

The sense of place is strong in all stories; some are set in Washington, others in a small Pennsylvania town in the foothills of the Alleghenies. One of my favorites is “Shade Gardening,” set in Washington in 1962. A young couple, devastated by the death of their young son but holding their family together for the sake of their other child moves into an unusual house just before the start of the Cuban missile crisis. It’s a tender but unflinching portrait of a woman’s grief and resiliency.

Ms. Campbell’s main characters are women and girls from a range of social classes, backgrounds, and ages; I was delighted by the freshness of each story, the graceful writing that makes storytelling look easy, but is in fact the hallmark of a very gifted author. This collection is highly recommended.

I also recommend this gorgeous essay by Ellen Prentiss Campbell, “Creative Defiance,” at Fiction Writers Review.

*I received a copy of this book from the author for review purposes, which in no way affected the content of my review.