“Lilli De Jong” by Janet Benton is a tour de force for women. It takes place in Philadelphia in the 1880’s.
Lilli de Jong is a young Quaker woman living with her recently widowed father and her brother. She’s been a teacher but recently let go because her father has been shunned from Meeting. She’s fallen in love with her brother’s friend and has become his fiancé. But he and her brother pack up and move to Pittsburgh leaving her behind while promising undying love and devotion. He will send for her as soon as he is settled. And then he doesn’t and she is with child.
It’s never been easy being a woman with a child and no husband. But this harsh telling seared my soul. I found my heart breaking over and over again for this young woman and her plight. Told in unsparing prose that gets straight to the heart of what being a woman is like. And how women suffer so as men are allowed to continue their normal lives. All while an innocent child is brought into the world and considered a bastard.
Lilli has to leave her home. You see, her father has taken up with his first cousin, and this only three weeks after her mother’s untimely death. So now Lilli is cast out and finds herself taken in by a charity home for unwed mothers in Philadelphia. Although it’s a haven of sorts, these places are far from ideal. They are just a means to an end. Babies are expected to be adopted out; given up. But Lilli discovers from chatter that babies do not aways end up in safe homes. Mostly, they do not thrive and are often abused. So she decides to find a way to keep her daughter, Charlotte. Any way she can. Of course that is easier said than done. What Lilli experiences over and over again is chilling. Often she is on the streets. She is hoping beyond hope that her love, her Johan, comes to her rescue even though she has not heard a peep from him.
Benton’s writing has been likened to that of Geraldine Brooks. Her attention to historical detail is spot-on. There’s quite a bit of focus on nursing the baby, and I think that could have been lessened. But, I read the book in a day. I wanted to know where Lilli and Charlotte were going…
Don’t miss the author’s note at the end of the novel. Benton says that the voice of an unwed mother rang in her ears as she nursed her own infant. She studied and discovered the plight of unwed mothers years ago. This novel is truly a labor of love to all the unwed mothers past, present, and future.
I have the generous people at Nan A. Talese to thank for my gorgeous hard cover. All in exchange for an honest review. I really enjoyed it!