Book Review: Lilli De Jong by Janet Benton

Wednesday, June 21, 2017
Lilli De Jong by Janet Benton is a well-written, touching and often heartbreaking historical fiction novel set in 1883 Philadelphia. It tells the story of Lilli, a twenty-two-year-old woman, brought up in a Quaker home, whose mother has recently died. She is miserable in the house with her father and his female cousin, and finds comfort in Johan, who is her father's  assistant.

Johan and Lilli fall in love, and he informs her that he is going to Pittsburgh with her brother, Peter. He asks her to be his wife, but her father does not allow it. Before Johan leaves, he and Lilli make love one time. This is when Lilli becomes pregnant.

Because her home life is so tension-filled, with Patience (the cousin) now marrying her father, and their ex-communication from the Quakers, Lilli hides her pregnancy, but she isn't able to forever. Patience confronts her, and Lilli admits she is with Johan's child. Patience sends her away to Philadelphia Haven for Women and Infants. It is a home specifically for unwed mothers, where they are taken care of (barely) and given a safe place to sleep.

The women have their babies in "the haven", and then their babies are taken away from them and given to an adoptive family. The women can leave the home and start over, hopefully leaving the disgrace behind them. Unlike Lilli, many of the women are pregnant because they were raped.

This is the plan for Lilli, only she doesn't want to give up Baby Charlotte after three weeks of nursing and caring for her, even though she believes there is no spot for her in her father's home, and she hasn't heard from Johan since he arrived in Pittsburgh. After many heart-wrenching scenes, where Lilli is writing about her life and the other girls in her diary, along with her own scorn and misfortune, the novel follows her path as a woman who had a child out of wedlock in the late 1800s and what she must do to survive.

This book will anger you at the treatment of these women. It will make you celebrate the strength of women. It will help you feel the special bond between women and children. The interesting thing is that while I was reading Lilli De Jong, I also started watching The Handmaid's Tale (a book by Margaret Atwood) on Hulu. If you aren't familiar with it, The Handmaid's Tale tells the story of a future dystopian United States, where women are second class citizens, who are only kept alive for the babies they can bring into this world. The themes of this dystopian series and this historical fiction novel are so similar, it's scary. Women's rights should never be a question.

Lilli De Jong is Janet Benton's first novel, and it's a winner. In the author's note, she states that this novel began when she was nursing her own infant and she heard Lilli's voice in her head. "Sometimes she railed against being cast out, with her life derailed for good, while her lover walked freely among respected persons. Sometimes, my own moments merged with hers, as when I marveled at the calm that descended while nursing or felt a fatigue I could never have imagined."

Check out Lilli De Jong today.

Margo L. Dill is a writer, editor, blogger and writing coach in St. Louis, MO. Find out more here. 


Sioux Roslawski said...


I wasn't drawn to the series The Handmaid's Tale until I heard Samira Wiley is in it. That clinched it. (It's my next series after I finish "The Americans," which is also quite gripping.)

This sounds like a book I would love. Thanks for doing the review. (A new book title is such a gift.)

Angela Mackintosh said...

Fantastic review, Margo! I don't read historical fiction but this book sounds outstanding. I also read the reviews on Amazon, which are equally impressive, so perhaps I will add this to my TBR pile.

I'll have to check out The Handmaid's Tale. Is it only on Hulu? Elisabeth Moss is great.

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