STARRED REVIEW
June 2016

A landmark college career

By Karin Tanabe
In 1897, Anita Hemmings was a senior at Vassar College alongside some of the best and brightest girls in the country. She was a member of the Glee Club and a fierce debater, but Hemmings also held a secret that should have banned her from admission: She was an African American. In The Gilded Years, Karin Tanabe fictionalizes the story of the real-life Hemmings, who graduated from Vassar more than 40 years before Vassar allowed African Americans to enroll.
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In 1897, Anita Hemmings was a senior at Vassar College alongside some of the best and brightest girls in the country. She was a member of the Glee Club and a fierce debater, but Hemmings also held a secret that should have banned her from admission: She was an African American. In The Gilded Years, Karin Tanabe fictionalizes the story of the real-life Hemmings, who graduated from Vassar more than 40 years before Vassar allowed African Americans to enroll. 

The daughter of a Boston janitor and the descendant of slaves, Hemmings was light complexioned enough to pass as white, and she was even voted class beauty. She kept a distance from her classmates, but in her senior year, Hemmings roomed with wealthy and well-connected Lottie Taylor. As she befriends the adventurous Lottie, Anita finds herself enjoying life as a privileged white woman. But when Lottie becomes infatuated with Anita’s brother, Anita’s secret faces a serious threat. 

A Vassar graduate, Tanabe first learned about Anita Hemmings from an article in the alumni magazine. This engaging novel, set in a time of conflict between old money and new ideas, captures both the bravery and the heartbreak of Anita’s decision. Though the writing at times lacks nuance, the story is a captivating one. Readers won’t soon forget Anita Hemmings or the choices she made.

 

This article was originally published in the June 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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The Gilded Years

The Gilded Years

By Karin Tanabe
Washington Square Press
ISBN 9781501110450

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