Lilli De Jong: A Novel by Janet Benton


“So little for a woman is permissible- yet on her back every human climbs to adulthood.”

If ever a sentence was loaded, the one above wins. The past isn’t as far away as it seems, certainly if you look around the world there are still women living with restrictions that lead to abuse and even death if she ‘disobeys’. It is 1883, and choices for a woman are limited by far more if she happens to find herself ‘in the family way’ and is unmarried, add to that a Quaker and you know this is going to be trouble. Such situations lead to banishment, and so Lilli must go to a home for unwed women where she is meant to give up her child as soon as it is born. What else can a woman do, live a life of shame and poverty with her ‘bastard’ child, become a beggar? What else is there to do when the man she fell in love with has disappeared and not kept his promise? Lilli De Jong is going to do everything she can for the love of her baby girl, everything- even if it means being an example of moral shame, giving her body if needs be, caring for other people’s babies- she will take whatever stones life throws at her just to be able to keep her child.

In order to work, certainly women couldn’t bring their babies along so the answer is having to leave her child in the care of others as she scrimps and saves. While the world was wide, and America was growing, a woman’s place was still narrow. Lily spills her life in her diary as she makes her way through a time unwelcoming to fallen women like her. She encounters those who would ‘help’ her by using her even more, but sometimes shame can be endured for the love between mother and child. Disillusioned by love, there is no man to depend on- not even her brother. Lilli has only herself, and women who walk the path today can certainly feel the suffering she encounters just trying to survive. Any woman can be Lilli, it’s all circumstance.

I was pulled into earlier times, I think it’s easy for modern women to forget the degradation women suffered. Choices are somewhat easier today by comparison, but there is still so much judgement placed upon a woman, particularly one raising a child on her own. We like to think we’re progressive, but there is always someone ready to question a woman’s morals, find her lacking. Janet Benton did a beautiful job putting the reader into Lilli’s shoes and setting the atmosphere of the past. It manages to be heavy and yet hopeful. Perfect for those who love historical fiction, women’s literature, literary fiction… I think they cover is beautiful too.

Available May 16, 2017

Doubleday Books


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