Lilli de Jong by Janet Benton
Publication Date: May 16, 2017
Nan A. Talese
Hardcover & eBook; 352 Pages
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A young woman finds the most powerful love of her life when she gives birth at an institution for unwed mothers in 1883 Philadelphia. She is told she must give up her daughter to avoid lifelong poverty and shame. But she chooses to keep her.
Pregnant, left behind by her lover, and banished from her Quaker home and teaching position, Lilli de Jong enters a home for wronged women to deliver her child. She is stunned at how much her infant needs her and at how quickly their bond overtakes her heart. Mothers in her position face disabling prejudice, which is why most give up their newborns. But Lilli can’t accept such an outcome. Instead, she braves moral condemnation and financial ruin in a quest to keep herself and her baby alive.
Confiding their story to her diary as it unfolds, Lilli takes readers from an impoverished charity to a wealthy family’s home to the streets of a burgeoning American city. Drawing on rich history, Lilli de Jong is both an intimate portrait of loves lost and found and a testament to the work of mothers. “So little is permissible for a woman,” writes Lilli, “yet on her back every human climbs to adulthood.”
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Lilli De Jong is a young woman who grew up in the Quaker faith in Germantown, Pennsylvania. She enjoys her post as a schoolteacher and is engaged in her 1883 community. However, when her mother passes, Lilli's life takes a turn. Lilli's father turns cold and Lilli seeks solace in the arms of Johan, her father's apprentice. One night of passion leaves Lilli pregnant after Johan has moved to Pittsburgh for work in the steel mills. With no news from Johan, Lilli finds herself at a charity of unwed mothers. However, when the time comes to give up her daughter, she can't, throwing Lilli down a path of hardship all for the sake of her daughter.
Intimate details of Lilli's hardships are shown through her private journal entries, pulling me into the unknown world of wet nurses and limited women's rights at the time. Reading Lilli's journey was an intensely emotional experience for me, as I imagine it would be for anyone who has had a child. I was most impressed by the writing of the reality of having a baby and the overwhelmingness of it all. I could not imagine having to go through what Lilli did. I was happy that the writing included the true feelings of new motherhood- the ups, the downs, the fatigue, not knowing if you can carry on, all while falling hopelessly in love with the person you have created. Lilli's voice is unique in that she is an intelligent, outspoken and passionate woman who has fallen into an unfortunate circumstance for her time period. However, even with these attributes, she is barely able to pull through as an unmarried mother in 19th century America. I am aware that being an unmarried mother definitely had its challenges in early American history, although I was surprised at some of the challenges Lilli faced and how they paralleled mothers in today's society. Overall, a passionate and engaging book about the bond between mother and child and the will to conserve that bond in 19th Century America.
This book was received for free in return for an honest review.
Janet Benton’s work has appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Glimmer Train, and many other publications. She has co-written and edited historical documentaries for television. She holds a B.A. in religious studies from Oberlin College and an M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and for decades she has taught writing and helped individuals and organizations craft their stories. She lives in Philadelphia with her husband and daughter. Lilli de Jong is her first novel.
Visit Janet Benton’s website for more information and updates. You can also connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Goodreads.