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Lilli de Jong - A Book Review

Lilli de Jong
By Janet Benton
Publisher Anchor Books, 2018
Soft cover, 321 pages
Available on online bookstores
U.S. $16; Kindle $8.99
Reviewed by Pnina Moed Kass

Philadelphia, 1883 is the time and setting, with the author's spotlight shining on a single twenty-three year old Quaker girl, Lilli de Jong. The linchpin of this drama is Lilli's unexpected pregnancy, her banishment from home and her resolute determination to give birth and keep her baby. As her format, Janet Benton uses the journal that Lilli keeps. The descriptions and insights are dramatic and sensitive, suiting a young woman who was educated to be a teacher.

The Quakers were said "to tremble in the way of the Lord" therein the origin of their name but Lilli never seems to tremble at what circumstance throws her way. She is intelligent and keenly perceptive in her observations and resolute in her determination not to abandon Charlotte, her baby girl. A contemporary reader will find much to identify with in this novel; indeed the heroine's feelings and insights are startling modern.

Noteworthy is Benton's rich detailing of the historical background: the treatment of single and impoverished women, the disparity between rich and poor, the gritty detailing of the city streets, the children's poorhouse, and the wealthy Rittenhouse neighborhood contrasted with Drunkards' Alley where Lilli is forced to leave her baby. There is continual tension and drama in this novel as Lilli juggles her options for survival. The author never lets us forget the existential choices Lilli de Jong is faced with on a daily basis – for how could the almshouse turn away a nursing mother, even an unwed one? She is an historian as well as a novelist; a storyteller as well as a recorder.

I leaned to the windows and saw a single enormous hall with cribs in rows, holding perhaps a hundred babies . . . their stick-like limbs and bony faces spoke volumes. Malnourished or dehydrated or diseased or all three . . . And who was caring for these frail beings? I couldn't discern if one was Charlotte. I scanned the rows again. Was that her?

This is a deeply moving novel that combines the drama of a young woman seeking to survive against a multifaceted historical background.


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