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