Saturday, August 19, 2017

The Gilded Years (Book Review)

Title: The Gilded Years
Author: Karin Tanabe
Publication: Washington Square Press, trade paperback, 2016
Genre: Historical Fiction
Plot: Growing up in Roxbury, Massachusetts, Anita Hemmings yearned for higher education and fell in love with the idea of attending Vassar College after she heard an alumna describe her experience. The only problem – Vassar has never accepted a woman of color. However, Anita is a gifted student and so light skinned she can pass for white and does. Now a senior in the class of 1897, Anita is beautiful, accomplished, and has rich friends, but she is living a lie. When a new friendship tempts her away from her studies, Anita enjoys her first taste of society but can never completely relax for fear that her secret will be revealed, jeopardizing everything she has worked for...

Audience: Fans of historical fiction, Seven Sisters alumnae, those interested in higher education for women or African American history

My Impressions: This was a fascinating and enjoyable book I didn't want to put down.  I learned about Anita Hemming's story when a fellow member of Roslindale Library’s Race and Inclusion Committee suggested The Gilded Years for our summer reading program (thanks, Talia!), and I liked it so much that I volunteered to lead the discussion. We had 12 people for our July discussion, all of whom had enjoyed it although, interestingly, we differed on our reaction to Anita’s deception. Most seemed to feel that that obtaining the high quality education she would not otherwise have been able to access justified attending Vassar under false pretenses. While I did not disagree, I was a little surprised Anita didn’t feel more guilt at hiding her heritage, particularly as she loved her family and appreciated the sacrifices her parents had made to send her to boarding school at Northfield Seminary (now, amusingly, Northfield Mt. Hermon, an Ivy League basketball feeder).
Anita Hemmings

One of my favorite aspects of the book was reading about William Lewis, who was a football star at Harvard while at Harvard Law School, the first Negro all-American, and a prominent Massachusetts lawyer. The son of former slaves, he attended Amherst College and played football there, and was elected captain by his classmates. I had come across him recently while editing a Harvard Football publication, and was amazed I had not previously known his story.

Although author Tanabe clearly spent significant time researching 1890s Vassar, some of her depictions felt very jarring to me. For example, I did not think young ladies of this era would have spent so much time discussing money – either they would have taken it for granted or like Anita have avoided mentioning it altogether (I wondered how she was able to dress as well as her more affluent classmates or at least avoid their noticing she had fewer or inferior clothes). Having read Carney’s House Party many, many times, I know that Vassar in 1911 required chaperones for interaction with young men, so it is hard to believe that 14 years earlier would have been different – and a well brought up young man of this era would never have pursued a young lady to her dormitory room! Also, didn’t these young Ivy Leaguers have anything better to do than drive to Poughkeepsie all the time? Naturally, I think the Harvard men should say home and hang out with Radcliffe women!

It was also interesting to read this because my niece is leaving tomorrow for her freshman year at Vassar! I am sure she will have a great experience, and not wind up with friends like Lottie.  I gave her a copy of Carney's House Party but I am not sure she has read it yet.  For those interested in the experience of the real-life Carney, Marion Willard, who attended Vassar from Mankato, Minnesota, I recommend Amy Dolnick's delightful Future in a Handbasket, which is based on Marion's letters home.

Source: My copy is from the Boston Public Library – where the real life Anita once worked as a librarian/cataloguer. Recommended.

No comments: