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.