Book Bag: “Lilli de Jong” by Janet Benton

Friday, June 09, 2017

By Steve Pfarrer


By Janet Benton

Nan A. Talese/Doubleday


Alongside early American feminists like Susan B. Anthony,  Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Sojourner Truth and Margaret Sanger, there’s a new name to consider: Lilli de Jong.

OK, Lilli may be a fictional character, but she’s a memorable one. As the narrator of Janet Benton’s eponymous historical novel, Lilli tells a story that’s both an indictment of the prejudices and restrictions women faced in the 19th century, as well as a gritty tale of one woman’s determination to protect her infant daughter.

Told through Lilli’s journals, “Lilli de Jong” is set in Philadelphia in 1883. Lilli is a young Quaker woman and schoolteacher who, after one indiscreet night with her fiancé, Johan, discovers she’s pregnant. Johan has gone to Pittsburgh to find work in a steel mill; he had promised to have Lilli join him once he’d settled, but she doesn’t hear from him again.

First Lilli loses her teaching job; then she’s forced from her home by her shrewish stepmother, who discovers Lilli’s pregnant and threatens to tell her father. She ends up in a charity home for unwed mothers, who are cared for through their pregnancies with the understanding they will give up their babies for adoption.

Lilli is determined, though, to keep her daughter, Charlotte — but to do so she’ll face scorn, disgust and outright hostility from many people she encounters, like a man who sneers at her on the street, “A harlot with a baby, eh?”

A much bigger challenge will be to find work, a place to live and the means to nurse her daughter regularly. Though delivered in a straightforward style, Lilli’s journal entries paint a grim picture of the gap between rich and poor in 19th-century America and the lack of any public safety net.

Benton, a graduate of the MFA program in writing at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, fleshes out her story with some excellent period detail, and the grime and soot of 19th-century Philadelphia is almost palpable. Aside from stark class divisions, it’s also an era when even affluent women had little control over their lives.

But “Lilli de Jong” is also a celebration of motherhood and the determination of one woman to challenge the status quo. And given the desperate steps Lilli must take to protect her daughter, the novel turns into a veritable page turner as it progresses. “If only,” Lilli says, “I could turn our world into one that welcomed us.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

Janet Benton reads from “Lilli de Jong” Sunday at 3 p.m. at Broadside Books in Northampton.