The Gilded Years

Written by Karin Tanabe
Review by Caroline Wilson

Karin Tanabe’s The Gilded Years focuses on the true story of Anita Hemmings. In 19th-century New England, Hemmings is a brilliant student, and she longs to attend Vassar College. But many of the colleges of the time are not integrated, and Anita is African-American. She uses her light skin to her advantage and passes for white. To her classmates she is a wealthy Bostonian, but in reality, Anita hails from the working class African-American neighborhood of Roxbury. Despite being a distinguished student with future opportunities, she must resume her real identity following graduation. It is Anita’s longing for more that draws her to Lottie Taylor. The wealthiest girl at school is bubbly and fun; no one is immune to her charms. But Lottie is also vicious when thwarted, a fact that Anita becomes intimately acquainted with.

The pace of the novel is rather glacial at first, but as Anita becomes enchanted by Lottie, the real action begins. Anita’s character is initially hard to like as she constantly obsesses about her motives for passing. But as the reader gets to know her, a great deal of sympathy is struck, particularly when her codependent relationship with Lottie ends in betrayal. Lottie’s characterization is probably the most vivid throughout the book, and her expected, yet unexpected turnaround is terrible to witness.

The Gilded Years has its flaws but will appeal to general historical fiction readers. The concept of passing versus owning one’s race is a fascinating issue rarely discussed in historical fiction. Anita’s struggle to find her place amongst the white upper crust, but also her own people, is palpable. Barraged on all sides, it takes a catastrophic fall for her to finally know she is worthy no matter which race she may claim.