Janet Benton is a local author in Philadelphia and will be appearing at the Collingswood Book Festival in October, so I planned to read her novel, Lilli de Jong, beforehand. Then I read some good reviews of her first novel and received some positive reactions from friends, so it moved up to the top of my TBR pile.
I read it quickly over the past week and would recommend it to most readers and highly recommend it to local readers.
We meet Lilli de Jong in the Germantown section of Philadelphia in the 1880s. She is a devout Quaker and school teacher who is dealing with the recent death of her mother. It might be the grief or just the naiveté of a young woman, but Lilli falls in love with Johan an apprentice of her father’s as a furniture makers. Before Johan (along with her younger brother) heads off to explore a better life in Pittsburgh and then send for her to join him, they have a night of passion and have sex. That interaction leads to Lilli finding herself pregnant and unmarried in a society that sees all such woman as whores and unworthy of assistance.
Lilli embarks on several months on her own, trying to keep herself and then her baby safe. She has not heard from Johan and assumes she has been duped into sex without any intention to marry her. She is forced to make many dangerous and challenging decisions to keep her baby and many people she encounters encourage her to give the baby up. However, that would likely mean death for her baby as there were little services and options for a “bastard” child.
There were a few times in the novel when I thought, “how much more can this woman endure,” but my interest in the character of Lilli and Benton’s writing kept me going. I don’t want to spoil any of the novel, so I will instead you recommend you pick up a copy and find out for yourself what happens to Lilli de Jong. (Also, if you are in the Philadelphia/Southern NJ area, mark October 7th on your calendar for the Collingswood Book Festival.)