Lilli de Jong: A Novel (Paperback)
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Library Journal Best Historical Fiction 2017
“A powerful, authentic voice for a generation of women whose struggles were erased from history—a heart-smashing debut that completely satisfies.”
—Jamie Ford, New York Times bestselling author of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet
Philadelphia, 1883. Twenty-three-year-old Lilli de Jong is pregnant and alone—abandoned by her lover and banished from her Quaker home. She gives birth at a charity for wronged women, planning to give up the baby. But the power of their bond sets her on a completely unexpected path. Unwed mothers in 1883 face staggering prejudice, yet Lilli refuses to give up her baby girl. Instead, she braves moral condemnation and financial ruin in a quest to keep the two of them alive.
Lilli confides this story to her diary as it unfolds, taking readers from a charity for unwed mothers to a wealthy family’s home and onto the streets of a burgeoning American city. Her story offers a rare and harrowing view into a time when a mother’s milk is crucial for infant survival. Written with startling intimacy and compassion, this accomplished novel is both a rich historical depiction and a testament to the saving force of a woman’s love.
About the Author
JANET BENTON’s work has appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Glimmer Train, and many other publications. She has cowritten and edited historical documentaries for television. She holds a B.A. in religious studies from Oberlin College and an M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and for decades she has taught writing and helped individuals and organizations craft their stories. She lives in Philadelphia with her husband and daughter. Lilli de Jong is her first novel.
Library Journal, Best Historical Fiction 2017
NPR, Best Books of 2017
Bustle, "The 17 Best Debut Novels by Women 2017"
Finalist, The Langum Prize in Historical Fiction 2017
“Beautifully written, emotionally resonant, and psychologically astute, Lilli de Jong is the story of an unwed mother in late 19th-century Philadelphia who, facing peril at every turn, will do almost anything to keep her daughter alive. Benton turns a laser eye to her subject, exposing the sanctimony, hypocrisies, and pervasive sexism that kept women confined and unequal in the Victorian era—and that still bedevil many women today. A gripping read.”
—Christina Baker Kline, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Orphan Train and A Piece of the World
“A stunning ode to motherhood. Lilli de Jong reminds us that there is no formula to being a good mother. Love is the essential ingredient, and only it gives everlasting life to our legacies. A debut of robust heart that will stay with me for a very long time.”
—Sarah McCoy, author of The Mapmaker’s Children
“Janet Benton’s remarkable novel Lilli de Jong is historical fiction that transcends the genre and recalls a past world so thoroughly that it breathes upon the page. From the first sentence, Lilli’s sensitive, observant, determined voice casts an irresistible spell. Benton combines rich, carefully researched detail with an imaginative boldness that is a joy to behold—though reader, be warned: Lilli’s story may break your heart.”
—Valerie Martin, author of The Ghost of the Mary Celeste
“[A] gorgeously written debut . . . Lilli’s fight to craft her own life and nurture her bond with her baby is both devastatingly relevant and achingly beautiful. A stunning read about the fierceness of love triumphing over a rigid society.”
—Caroline Leavitt, author of Is This Tomorrow
"A captivating, page-turning, and well-researched novel about the power of a mother's love . . . A great choice for book clubs and readers of Geraldine Brooks."
—Library Journal (starred review)
“The trials Lilli undertakes to keep her baby are heart-rending, and it's a testament to Benton's skill as a writer that the reader cannot help but bear witness. In a style reminiscent of Geraldine Brooks, she seamlessly weaves accurate historical detail as well as disturbing societal norms into the protagonist's struggles . . . An absorbing debut from a writer to watch.”
“A heartrending debut . . . Benton’s exacting research fuels Lilli’s passionate, authentic voice that is ‘as strong as a hand on a drum . . . that pounds its urgent messages across a distance’ . . . Lilli’s inspiring power and touching determination are timeless.”
“A harrowing look at the strictures of nineteenth-century American society. . . . [Lilli] is a full-fledged heroine, persevering despite seemingly insurmountable odds. . . her voice is distinctive, her fierceness driven by a mother’s love.”
“I loved this novel. Lilli de Jong is deeply moving and richly imagined, both tragic and joyous. Janet Benton has an exceptional ability to bring history to life . . . It's not only a compelling, beautifully crafted historical novel, however: it's also important . . . Lilli's life-and-death struggle is shockingly common to women even today.”
—Sandra Gulland, author of the internationally bestselling Josephine B. Trilogy
“Writing with a historical eye akin to Geraldine Brooks and incisive prose matching that of Anthony Doerr, debut novelist Janet Benton magically weaves a gripping narrative of hardship, redemption, and hope while illuminating a portrait of little-known history. The result is an unforgettable and important reflection on the maternal and, ultimately, the human bond. Stunning!”
—Pam Jenoff, author of The Kommandant’s Girl
“[Lilli’s] clear-eyed view of her situation and her fearless questioning of a repressive system makes for exhilarating reading . . . Lilli De Jong has real resonance in today’s battles over women’s reproductive health and the rights of working mothers.”
“A confident debut . . . Sentence by carefully-crafted sentence, Benton ensnares the reader.”
“This is both a super lush historical novel and an amazing feminist manifesto. Buy this for your mom, buy this for your boyfriend, buy it for everyone.”
“A new feminist classic for Trump-era America.”
“A gorgeous paean to the courage and ferocity of a mother’s love, Lilli de Jong pays homage to the solace of writing through troubling times and will haunt readers long after its denouement.”