Lilli de Jong by Janet Benton
Published by Nan A. Talese on May 6, 2017
my rating: ★★★
Goodreads avg: 3.99 (as of 2019-10-08)
Pregnant, abandoned by her lover, and banished from her Quaker home and teaching position, Lilli de Jong enters a charity for wronged women to deliver her child. She is stunned at how much her infant needs her and at how quickly their bond overpowers her heart. Mothers in her position have no sensible alternative to giving up their children, but Lilli can’t bear such an outcome. Determined to chart a path toward an independent life, Lilli 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 perilous streets of a burgeoning American city. Lilli de Jong is at once a historical saga, an intimate romance, and a lasting testament to the work of mothers. “So little is permissible for a woman,” writes Lilli, yet on her back every human climbs to adulthood.”
Lilli de Jong is the story of a young quaker girl who finds herself pregnant in a society where an unwed mother is a scourge and disgrace. I enjoyed the book at the start; not knowing much about quakers, I was intrigued to hear more about Lilli’s life. I also enjoyed the journal format, with Lilli speaking directly to the reader as if we were her diary. Which, in the narrative, we are.
How is it that shame affixes itself to the violated, and not to the violator?
Lilli is forced to seek shelter in a home for single pregnant women, and is lucky enough to be boarded and fed as she waits to birth her child. While the norm is to adopt one’s baby out and to continue life as though the pregnancy had never happened, Lilli stands her ground and decides that she wants to keep her baby. As expected, this leads to many difficulties.
So little is permissible for a woman—yet on her back every human climbs to adulthood.
I found it intriguing for quite a while, but over time the hurdles Lilli faced became tiresome. I’m sure the events were realistic to an extent, but it was difficult to suspend my belief when the worst seemed to happen at all times. As soon as things began turning around for Lilli, something even worse would happen. At first this was surprising and kept me on my toes, but I felt the author took it just too far. I was also quite frustrated at how Lilli behaved some of the time, she seemed to change her mind on a whim and had no idea how to make decisions that would actually benefit her. It’s likely because she was quite young, but still, it became irritating to read through. I will say that I had no issue with the writing itself. Benton knows how to create an atmosphere that will draw the reader in, and how to create interesting side characters to support her lead.
Did she go to the grave with painful secrets? Must every woman? Will I?
It was clear that Benton wanted to shed some light on the hardships women faced during this time period. As she mentions in the afterword, these girls’ stories went untold — I’m actually excited to read some of the books she used for her research. She also clearly wanted to show the deep bond a mother feels toward their child. In that respect, this may be more impactful to readers who enjoy reading about motherhood. Parts of it may be difficult if you do have a child — without spoilers, I’ll just say she and her daughter are put into some dangerous situations — but I think that would make it easier to relate to.
This knowledge is not a curse. Separation from the garden’s innocence is not a sin. It is a beginning.
Overall, while the book was well-written, I struggled with the seemingly endless tragedies the title character faced and got less out of this than I was hoping to.