The Gilded Years

The Gilded Years

A Novel

Book - 2016
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"Since childhood, Anita Hemmings has longed to attend the country's most exclusive school for women, Vassar College. Now, a bright, beautiful senior in the class of 1897, she is hiding a secret that would have banned her from admission: Anita is the only African-American student ever to attend Vassar. With her olive complexion and dark hair, this daughter of a janitor and descendant of slaves has successfully passed as white, but now finds herself rooming with Louise "Lottie" Taylor, the scion of one of New York's most prominent families. Though Anita has kept herself at a distance from her classmates, Lottie's sphere of influence is inescapable, her energy irresistible, and the two become fast friends. Pulled into her elite world, Anita learns what it's like to be treated as a wealthy, educated white woman--the person everyone believes her to be--and even finds herself in a heady romance with a moneyed Harvard student. It's only when Lottie becomes infatuated with Anita's brother, Frederick, whose skin is almost as light as his sister's, that the situation becomes particularly perilous. And as Anita's college graduation looms, those closest to her will be the ones to dangerously threaten her secret."--
Publisher: New York : Washington Square Press, 2016
Edition: First Washington Square Press trade paperback edition
ISBN: 9781501110450
Branch Call Number: FIC TANABE 2016
Characteristics: 382 pages : illustrations ; 21 cm


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PimaLib_ChristineR Feb 09, 2018

A fictionalized account of the very real Anita Hemmings, the first WOC to graduate from Vassar in 1897. Hemmings "passed" as white until her roommate hired a private detective to find out the truth and used it to try to have her ejected from school prior to graduation. Obviously this all makes for quite the story, but so little is known about her time at Vassar that Tanabe had the chance to run with this story.

I found it quite difficult to get into the first part of the book. It seemed to consist mainly of Anita being put in uncomfortable situations, worrying that she would be found out and spending a lot of time crying and feeling sick to her stomach. I know that we had to see the change that comes over her as she is drawn into the ultra-rich world of her senior roommate, Lottie, but her early character didn't feel genuine. At this point, she's in her fourth year of college. If she was this stressed out for four years, she would never have made it.

We also learn in the afterword, that eventually she and her husband moved to New York and passed as white for the rest of their lives; meaning that any family that came to visit them had to come in through the servants' entrance. To me, this contrasted with the Anita grappling with whether it better served her community to pass as white or if she should embrace her Negro heritage. Of course, the real Anita doesn't sound like the kind of person most would find to be a likable heroine.

Once Anita started to have some fun and worked to balance the two sides of her life, the story picked up pace quickly and became a much more interesting read. It's not until she truly puts herself at risk that the pressure she feels begins to seem real. Regardless, I would still recommend this book to those who are interested in the Gilded Age and questions of race and "passing" in the generations following the Civil War.

Jun 19, 2017

"The Gilded Years" is an fictionalized story about Anita Hemmings, who in real life was the first black woman to graduate from Vassar. Anita, who "passed" as white through most of her college career, was outed by her roommate in her final semester. The whole scenario makes for interesting historical fiction. The book is well researched, and Karin Tanabe portrays the Gilded Age's glamour, juxtaposing it with the poverty of the have-nots. There were a few issues that niggled at me: The characters' motivations were often obscure, and it wasn't clear how certain African-American characters rose to such prominent positions when racial bias was so strong. Clearer depictions of those things would have made the characters, and the book overall, more realistic for me. Still, it was worth the read to learn about Anita's story.

AL_ANNAL Sep 03, 2016

The world of Vassar College in 1897, through the eyes of a black student passing as white. Illuminating in so many ways!

DBRL_KatSU Aug 19, 2016

I had never heard of Anita Hemmings before I learned of this book! "The Gilded Years" follows Anita in her senior year (1897) at Vassar College, where black women were not admitted. Anita was black, but very light skinned, and she gained admittance by passing as white. Her new roommate, Lottie, introduced her to the seemingly magical world of the privileged, and despite all the warnings from her family (and the truth she knew herself), she allowed herself to become close to Lottie. And close to a handsome, wealthy Harvard gentleman. It all becomes too much for Anita when her brother (who is also light-skinned, but not quite as light as Anita) becomes the apple of Lottie's eye.

I genuinely enjoyed this story, but I feel that the dialogue felt forced and unnatural at times- though this could have just been the author attempting to show the time period. I also had some trouble with the reasoning behind some of the characters' actions. Given all that, I still highly recommend this historical fiction novel!


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