Based on a true story, The Gilded Years, by Karin Tanabe is the story of a woman who is set to graduate from Vassar College, one of the most influential women’s colleges in the country, in the final years of the 19th Century. While women college graduates were not a dime a dozen in 1897, Anita Hemmings has a particular secret. She is, in fact, African American, and during that sad period of U.S. history, Black women were not permitted to attend this exclusive school.
But she was so bright and so determined to attend Vassar that she took advantage of her light skin and, with the approval of her family and the people in her community, she successfully passed herself off as Caucasian.
She is successful at staying under the radar until her final year, when she is given a new roommate, Lottie Taylor, the daughter of a wealthy New York City industrialist in the ilk of the Astors and the Rockefellers. Lottie is rich, spoiled, bright, and lots of fun. Despite her family’s warnings, Anita gets carried away, caught up in the entertaining life Lottie offers. Anita even goes as far as getting romantically involved with one of Lottie’s friends, the white son of a Chicago millionaire.
Soon, Anita’s carefully planned life begins to unravel, and she is faced with the possibility of being forbidden to complete her college career and graduate from Vassar.
There is no question that the historical facts are fascinating. Anita Hemming’s story was compelling and the reader can’t help but be furious that an intelligent – brilliant, really – woman in 1897 couldn’t attend a major university because of the color of her skin. I felt, however, that much of the book drifted away from the important story, and very often I felt as though I was reading a beach novel featuring the crazy antics of a couple of college students. Lots and lots of time was spent talking about the nonacademic activities. Interesting as the activities might have been, I would have liked a bit more meat about racism and sexism in the late 1900s and less about taking carriage rides in Central Park and the beautiful clothes that Anita borrowed from Lottie.
I sound harsh, and the fact of the matter is that I would recommend the book, with the caveat that it is a bit more of a light read than a serious analysis of a troubling time in our history. Having said that, I loved reading about New York City during the so-called gilded years, and I feel like Tanabe’s characters were realistic and interesting. I actually found Lottie’s character to be more compelling than Anita’s. It says a lot about an author’s writing when the reader can actually sort of like a character who ends up being pretty unlikable.
I think The Gilded Years would provide fodder for some discussion of the history of African American women in our country.