Bachelor Girl by Kim van Alkemade brings Jazz Age New York to life
“The Bachelor Girl life is one sweet song, providing it doesn’t last too long.” –Helen Rowland
According to author Kim van Alkemade, a “bachelor girl” in the context of her novel is one of the thousands of independent women living and working in New York City during the early 20th century. It was a social movement which included flappers, career girls, spinsters, and other single women making their own living in Manhattan. The protagonist of this story is more or less thrust into this role, but takes it on with intelligence and determination.
Helen Winthrope wakes from a terrible surgery to find her life in shambles. Her acting career seemingly over—or at least at a standstill—she accepts her mother’s suggestion to attend a Yankees baseball game with the team’s millionaire owner, Jacob Ruppert, to get her spirits up after a long convalescence. Helen’s father, who had died tragically a decade previously, was Jake’s mechanic and friend. She’d never forgiven Jake for his part in the accident that took her father’s life, but the adult Helen was having trouble finding it in her heart to hate the kind, generous man. When an opportunity opens for Helen to realize her career dreams, Jake and his ever-ready personal assistant, Albert Kramer, are at her beck and call.
Yet success is not at her fingertips. She finds running her own business, especially one that relies on the whims of the public, is an uncertain and precarious prospect. As her friendship with Albert deepens and her career aspects wane, she wars with herself over life’s meaning and her tangle of relationships. Albert, too, is having trouble reconciling his desires with society’s demands. Both constrained by the whims of their curiously unpredictable benefactor, they must navigate their professional landscape while giving up pieces of their personal aspirations. This is a story of grandiose dreams, compromise, and forbidden love in many forms. It is also full of secrets, twists and turns, and a bevy of controversial subjects, including one’s socioeconomic status and minority rights.
Although narrated by Helen and Albert, the central character is clearly the mysterious Jacob Ruppert, who is a real historical figure of the era. Van Alkemade explains her interest in writing about him: “To me he seemed a forgotten example of the Gilded Age millionaire. He was a life-long bachelor, and I was interested in the different ways other characters could interpret that fact. He was associated with the Vanderbilts and the Astors but he is now little known outside of baseball circles. His history spanned a rapidly changing time for both America and New York City, and his personal life was both eccentric and enigmatic.”
While Helen and Albert were also real people, the author only borrowed their names and vague roles in Jacob Ruppert’s life—their personas are completely of the author’s imagining. There was simply not enough information available, which—for the historical novelist—is a boon.
Both Bachelor Girl and the author’s previous book, Orphan #8, delve into sensitive matters; however the author is not worried about including them. “I think historical fiction is exactly the place to confront the historical bias of difficult topics that still concern us today. I see it as an imaginative way of reminding readers that American history has always been one of diversity and struggle, as well as perseverance and success.” Van Alkemade also enjoys using crossover characters to link her novels, and is currently working on another dual-narration story set in NYC. For in-depth articles related to her research and family history, visit the author’s website and blog. Currently posted are pieces on the real Helen Weyant, Black Manhattan, the column Reflexions of a Bachelor Girl, and the Hebrew Orphan Asylum, among others.
About the contributor: Arleigh Ordoyne has worked in the book industry for 13 years and has reviewed with HNR since 2011.