Lilli De Jong by Janet Benton (Doubleday, 2017)


“It's said that every woman's painful labor is God's punishment. Eve ate an apple, and God pours wrath on every mother. So the Bible tells it.” (p.320)

The story of Eve and the serpent in the Garden of Eden, which is the Biblical explanation for the extreme pains of childbirth, casts women in the role of eternal seductress. and solidifies women's plight in this world as second rate citizens. This is the canvas on which Janet Benton paints the exquisite story of a young Quaker woman in 1883 Philadelphia, Lilli De Jong, who in a moment of passion, abandons her scruples and makes love with her fiance before his departure to Pittsburgh where he plans to create a new and better life for them.

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But as Lilli explains in her collection of ten notebooks, a series of events occurred after she and Johan made love that have turned her narrow world into a nightmare of unimagined events that threaten not only her existence, but the welfare of the tiny, red-headed baby girl to whom she gives birth.

The first event that had put Lilli's life into a tailspin was the sudden, unexpected death of her mother, who had been Lilli's loving support throughout the young girl's life, seeing to it that Lilli grew up educated and open-minded. In fact, Lilli served the community in Germantown as a teacher. Lilli had a great sense of herself as a woman and a member of the Society of Friends.

After the unexpected death of her mother, one of Lilli's father's first cousins, a cold woman named Patience, comes to help the family deal with its loss. But two nights after the arrival of the spinster cousin, Lilli discovers a shocking scene. “That woman stood in her dressing gown on the frozen ground, her pale hair loose and stippled with moonlight, her muscular arms clutching my father's torso. And he, clad in faded woolen underwear, gripped her in return. Their pelvises were pressed together and their faces seemed joined at the lips, as if consuming one another.” (p. 7) From that moment, Lilli became a stranger in her own home.

When she finds herself pregnant from her moment of passion with Johan, Lilli realizes that her condition will not be tolerated, even in a home where temptation and sin has been conducted by her own father. She manages to find a place at the Philadelphia Haven for Women and Infants, a home for unwed mothers. Life in the Haven is stark, cruel, and above all, hopeless, for most of the “bastards” born there are given away three weeks after their births, supposedly to good homes, but that is not necessarily the case. Although Lilli makes several attempts to contact Johan, who is with Lilli's brother, Peter, in far off Pittsburgh, her fiance seems to have forsaken her and Lilli has many touch decisions to make as her baby, Charlotte, is born.

The struggles and torments that Lilli DeJong is willing to suffer in order to keep her daughter are beyond what most of us can imagine in modern life. Today it is common occurrence to pick up People magazine and read about all of the children being born to celebrities out of wedlock. The stigma of single parent homes has lessened, and more and more society embraces all types of unusual family structures.

But in 1883, Lilli DeJong must go to work to support herself and Charlotte by renting herself out as a “wet nurse” to a well-to-do woman of society who has a “career” as a newspaper critic of music and theater. While Lilli nourishes the scion of Philadelphia royalty, her own child stays in a meagre setting that nearly kills her. And, the little boy who takes his nourishment from Lilli's breast, is ignored completely by his two selfish parents who have no time for him.

Beautifully crafted, Benton's first novel is well researched and takes us back to an age when things were not easy for the poor and downtrodden. Yet, through her quiet and resourceful ways, Lilli DeJong manages to overcome hurdles to face bravely her uncertain future. The prose of the novel is poetic and sweet. Lilli's observations of her little girl, the way the top of her head smells, her round cheeks, and the rising of her belly after being suckled, capture exactly that mothers feel as they get to know the strange creatures who have shared their bodies for the better part of the year. Benton artfully describes the way a woman's body responds when a child cries to be nursed, or those first few seconds when the child latches onto the breast. These are not necessarily moments that women share with one another, or even with their husbands when we think about what it is like to nurse a child, but Benton has put it out there for us to think about in the powerful bond that develops between mother and child through that early relationship.

The question that sustains the story is “how can this possibly end for Lilli,” and in my heart as I read, it seemed that there had to be only one way it could end. I'm not going to share that thought with you because I think it is well worth it for you to discover the ending for yourself. Lilli De Jong takes us back more than a century and helps us realize how far women have come in 125 years, but also it helps us to see the unbreakable bonds that are set between parents and children.