Rhode Island author Donna Russo Morin’s historical fiction novel, “Gilded Dreams,” could not be more timely. Coming on the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution, granting women the right to vote, this gem of a novel puts the fight for women’s suffrage in personal terms. At the same time, it is a story of two women from different social classes who form a bond that endures through times of loss, violence, and national upheaval.
Its setting, in Newport, Rhode Island, gives the story a dimension that contrasts the wealth of families in this summer playground with the dire struggles of women who were often consigned to poverty upon the death of a spouse.
The story begins in April of 1912 with the sinking of the Titanic in the frigid north Atlantic. Socialite Pearl Worthington Wright lost both her parents, who were aboard the ship. Adding to her grief, Pearl later learns from the reading of the will that all her family’s wealth and property will go to her husband, Peter, who married into the family, and not to her. This gross unfairness ignites a flame in Pearl, who shares her feelings of outrage with her best friend and confidante, Ginevra, an Italian immigrant and naturalized citizen.
Pearl and Ginevra find a kindred partner in powerful Newport socialite Alma Vanderbilt Belmont, who actually was a leader of the suffrage movement and not a fictional character. One of the most vivid and powerful character in the novel, Alma is a formidable force for the women’s suffrage movement. They met when Alva was consoling Pearl for the loss of her parents. Alva invited Pearl and Ginevra to a suffrage meeting in Newport.
Their meeting with Alva changes the course of their lives. Pearl and Ginevra devote the next eight years to advance the movement to gain passage of the women’s suffrage amendment. Morin’s novel reminds us all that the right to vote, like the fight for equal justice, is one that was hard earned in the face of prejudice and violence. Pearl and Ginevra encounter stiff resistance in the form of the “antis,” men and women who push back on the suffrage movement. The story moves through World War I and the Night of Terror, when women’s suffrage protesters were jailed and subjected to cruel treatment.
Gilded Dreams was published as America prepares to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the passage of the women’s suffrage amendment on Aug. 18, 2020. At a time when the quest for racial justice and equal rights for people of color has boiled over in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd and other Blacks, Gilded Dreams reminds us that the struggle for equal rights has existed throughout our nation’s history.