“The Gilded Hour” by Sara Donati is an historical novel set in New York City during 1883. It is also the first in the author’s new series. This series is about the granddaughter and the great-granddaughter of the Bonners, Savards and Freemans. Readers of the author’s six-volume series (the Wilderness novels) will recognize the families from this series.
When the story begins The Brooklyn Bridge is about to open, gas lights still outnumber those that are electric and the Statue of Liberty has yet to be built (1886). The meticulous research by the author enabled her to create a realistic climate of this era and New York City at this time. The portrayal of two women physicians of color was unusual for women at that time rarely obtained a higher education, let alone become physicians.
The two women of this novel, Anna and Sophie Savard, are distant cousins. They were both orphaned at a young age and sent to live with their modern and free thinking Aunt Quinlan, at her Manhattan home. The two cousins practice medicine in this city teeming with immigrants, starving families and abandoned orphans.
The author writes that there were about 30,000 orphans in New York at that time while the orphan asylums could take in no more than 12,000 at a time.
One day Anna gets called to an orphanage by Mary Augustin of the Sisters of Charity. While there she is asked to examine four newly orphaned children of Italian immigrants.
Anna knows the two girls, Rosa and Lia will be separated from their two brothers,Tonino and Vittorio Russo, as no orphanage back then took in both sexes, Anna doesn’t know how to tell this to 9-year-old Rosa.
Anna herself was separated from her brother at a young age. She identifies with Rosa. Later, when the children are being transported to the Roman Catholic orphan asylum, an incident causes so much panic that the boys get lost in the crowd. Anna and Sophie feel that they have to help young Rosa and Lia to find their brothers. In the meantime, Rosa does something so brave when she takes five-year-old Lia and they run away in the middle of the night.
Eventually, Rosa must find Anna, the only adult who has shown any understanding of her situation. The little girls make their way to the Quinlan household with the help of Giancarlo (Jack) Mezzanotte and Oscar Maroney, detective-sergeants with the New York Police Department. Jack makes himself available to track down the two brothers through welfare agencies, jails, the asylums on Blackwell Island and a remote orphanage on Staten Island.
This story explores the restraints on women in 1883. There is also a detective who has witnessed Dr. Anna Savard pushing for better living and sanitary conditions.
Anthony Comstock, the U.S. Postal Inspector at the time, is an actual person, who took it upon himself to uphold the virtues of Victorian morality, an anti-vice crusader. Among other things he wrote false letters to physicians pretending to be in need of help, setting a trap for that particular physician, if he answered with any information about contraception.
Dr. Sophie Savard finds herself caught between her obligation to her patients and the laws of that time that forbid/prevent her from providing the required care. This brings the physicians to the attention of Comstock. Eventually, this situation and a mystery will bring together physicians and detectives together to stop a series of violent crimes.
“The Gilded Hour” gives the reader a glimpse into the New York City of 1883. There are stories within stories of hardship, social status, extreme poverty, immigrants and orphans and racism. It is a novel about love, courage and strength.
Rosina Lippi writes under the pen name of Sara Donati.