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Review: Lilli de Jong, by Janet Benton
Doubleday, 2017. 335 pp. $27

This riveting debut novel shows how quickly and thoroughly a woman’s life may unravel, to which the only responses must be fortitude, will, and, at times, subterfuges of which men know nothing — and don’t wish to know. In 1883, twenty-two-year-old Lilli de Jong loses her mother to untimely death, whereupon this Philadelphia family of plain-speaking, plain-living Quakers falls apart. Her father, a selfish, irascible furniture maker of great stubbornness and little foresight, takes to drink, upsetting the Friends elders, and he compounds the felony by inviting his cousin, Patience, into his home and bed. That gets him expelled from the local meeting, and Lilli from her teaching job at the Friends’ school.

Then her suitor and brother, having had enough of the furniture shop and its cantankerous master, go seek their fortunes in the Pittsburgh steel mills, leaving Lilli friendless and vulnerable. What’s more, the night before her departure, Johan, the boyfriend, makes her pregnant. Three men have therefore done what men so often do, shielded from responsibility or ostracism, while a woman takes the shame, the burden, and the calumny, visible to all.
Lilli talks her way into a charitable home for expecting, unwed mothers, by no means a happy place, though she realizes she could have suffered much worse:

After stirring hot vats of laundry, wringing out the steaming cloths, and hanging them on lines; after scrubbing floors on our knees, helping Cook peel potatoes and knead heaps of dough, wiping away the grime that falls to every surface from the city air, and unpacking crates of donated supplies left at the back gate, we should want nothing more than rest. But without work to occupy us, our minds wander to places of uncertainty and dread. Better to sit in an upholstered chair, lean toward the orb of a gas lamp in the parlor, and draw a brightly threaded needle in and out of a dish towel or an apron. Better to form lovely flowers than to consider that the promise of our youth has bloomed and died.

Mrs. G. W. Clark’s Open Door, home for unwed mothers, which opened in Omaha in 1892 (courtesy University of Nebraska’s Center for Digital Research and http://plainshumanities.unl.edu/peattie/ep.owh.cha.0005.html)

But the charity assumes — nay, almost demands — that these women give up their newborns for adoption. And when the time comes, Lilli refuses, unaware of the terrors, hardships, and exploitation that await but adamant that she won’t abandon her little daughter, Charlotte, flesh of her flesh, as others have abandoned her.

I love this premise, the inverse of so many novels in which a mother gives up a child, and either party tries to reconnect later. Not that there’s anything wrong with such stories, but consider the immediacy, the elegant, hard-edged simplicity of Benton’s approach. Her protagonist has an infant crying for milk, but Lilli has no money, no food for herself, and nowhere to live; meanwhile, she’s looked upon as a whore, vagrant, or juicy target. That predicament, which Lilli periodically escapes and falls back into, creates more electricity than your average hydro plant. Her conscience, developed from a young age and schooled in the Friends’ outlook, pushes against her needs constantly, and she struggles to do the right thing.

Consequently, Benton need not strain to place obstacles in Lilli’s way, for the world is stacked against her, and the “no — and furthermores” flow as naturally as a river. For instance, when Lilli reluctantly leaves Charlotte with a wet nurse and hires herself out in the same capacity to a wealthy family, you can probably imagine a few problems, such as the lascivious, unhappy master of the house. But furthermore, you have the doctor who must approve her position and whose half-educated word is law, and the myriad, uncountable ways in which the mistress of the house humiliates her.

Lilli narrates her story through diary entries, and though I like her voice and simple style, I wonder whether she could have written so fluidly. For a young woman who has read only those books that contain useful information and little or no fiction — her parents obeyed the stricture of plainness in all ways — Lilli has a highly polished pen that never hunts for a word or a thought. Benton wants to write a coherent novel, and no one can object to that, yet because the narration is so articulate, it doesn’t always feel contemporaneous with the action, as though Lilli writes years later. To credit Benton’s storytelling, however, this never occurred to me until I finished the book.

Nevertheless, I couldn’t help noticing that Charlotte at times seems more like a four-or five-month-old infant than a newborn. That’s not a deal-breaker, except that I had to stop and think about my own children when they were infants, which took me out of the story. The plethora of exclamation points also puts me off, a bad editorial decision for several reasons, not least pushing a sober-minded, nineteenth-century young woman used to self-discipline too far toward a modern-day schoolgirl tearing a passion to tatters. Lilli’s story needs no adornment, any more than she needs (or would think to use) lipstick and rouge. At its best, which is very good indeed, Lilli de Jong delivers a powerful moral tale from simple, basic elements.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.