Bibliophile | Courageous woman seizes a better life in ‘The Gilded Years’

The Gilded Years
by Karin Tanabe
Simon & Schuster

The ‘Gilded Age’ was a period in the United States following the Civil War, lasting from 1860 to 1896. It was a time of rapid economic, technological, political and social growth but it was also marked by ostentatious displays of wealth and questionable ethics as well as environmental degradation, massacre of the Indigenous Peoples of the Great Plains and increasing discrimination against African Americans.

Before the end of the 19th century, marriage was regarded as essential for women, but an education was not. Women were fighting to get into institutions of higher education and Vassar College, a private liberal arts college in Poughkeepsie, New York, became the second degree-granting institution of higher education for women in the United States. But it remained exclusively for ‘white’ women until the mid-1940s.

Karin Tanabe is a graduate of Vassar College and she came across an article in a Vassar College Alumni magazine about Vassar’s first African American student – Anita Hemmings. Tanabe’s historical novel imagines the life of a determined young woman who managed to pass as white to graduate from the elite college in 1897, when African Americans were treated as mentally, physically and spiritually inferior – “built for labour and breeding”.

Anita’s grandmother was an illiterate slave who was impregnated by a white man and her father came from a similar forced union. Working hard to pay for her by cleaning up after, transporting and serving white people, Anita’s parents knew that living life without a Black marker against her name would expand their daughter’s world for her to fulfil her potential.

At that time, less than 1% of Black children attended high school, but Anita excelled at her language studies and she found herself rooming with a young woman from one of New York’s wealthiest families in her senior year. Anita sees what it is like to be treated as a wealthy white woman and becomes less cautious after nearly four years of maintaining her charade, despite warnings from her brother.

Many older LGBTI+ people know how exhausting it is living a life as someone else and having the threat of discovery that would destroy your life ever-present. Soon to be made into a motion picture to be produced by Reece Witherspoon, The Gilded Years is a suspenseful drama of courage and betrayal; of how one woman dared to grab a better life and many people on both sides of the divide made the sacrifices to support her in attaining her dream.

Lezly Herbert

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