LILLI DE JONG by Janet Benton


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A young Quaker woman struggles to keep her out-of-wedlock child in 1880s Pennsylvania.

At the book’s opening, Lilli de Jong is a former schoolteacher committing her story to paper from the confines of a Philadelphia charity for unwed mothers. Amid descriptions of life in the haven along with stirring encounters with other ostracized girls there, Lilli’s own history unfolds. Abandoned by her fiance, relieved of her job, and banned from Meeting due to misconduct of her father's, Lilli is forced to conceal her pregnancy and flee her home in Germantown. She plans to give her baby up for adoption three weeks after birth, since seeking employment, acceptance, and even shelter as an unwed woman with a child is nearly impossible. Soon Lilli bears a little girl and finds she cannot part with her. The trials Lilli undertakes to keep her baby are heart-rending, and it’s a testament to Benton’s skill as a writer that the reader cannot help but bear witness. In a style reminiscent of Geraldine Brooks, she seamlessly weaves accurate historical detail as well as disturbing societal norms into the protagonist’s struggles. A diary as a literary device can be both trying for the reader and a restrictive device for an author to wield, but Benton pulls it off with grace. At times the story is bogged down with repetitive and somewhat obsessive descriptions of nursing, but that's a minor point when cast against the monumental accomplishment the novel achieves. In the modern battle for rights for working mothers and equal pay for equal work, Benton holds a mirror up to the past and in doing so, illustrates how far we have come as well as how far we have yet to go.

An absorbing debut from a writer to watch.

Pub Date: May 16th, 2017
ISBN: 978-0-385-54145-9
Page count: 352pp
Publisher: Talese/Doubleday
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15th, 2017


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