Reviewed by Natasha Larimer
The title character of Lilli de Jong(Penguin) is a young, unwed Quaker from the Germantown section of late-nineteenth-century Philadelphia. And her intriguing story is the latest arrival to the timeless literary genre of expectant single women, and the often tragic limitations society impresses upon them and their eventual offspring.
Janet Benton’s debut novel takes place in Philadelphia during the 1880s, and the rich descriptions of the gritty city, myriad residences, and diverse inhabitants are as evocative as the tale itself. In the early pages of the story, Lilli finds herself cast adrift, pregnant and disconnected from her lover who has left for Pittsburgh with a promise but no forwarding address. After her family and local Quaker community disown her, Lilli sets off in search of shelter and assistance in a society ill-equipped and unwilling to help women in her condition.
The birth of her daughter propels Lilli into the byzantine world of wet-nursing, which simultaneously gave upper-class women a modicum of freedom to both have children and pursue rare vocational opportunities, and offered well-paying employment for lower-class women. Benton illustrates the awkward class conflict wet-nursing produced in the home, and explores a problem familiar to contemporary readers: How does a working-class mother find childcare for her own children while providing care for another woman’s baby? It is this very modern conundrum that ultimately drives the story through perilous twists and turns.
Owing to the Quakers’ belief in educating women and encouraging them to speak their mind, Lilli evolves into an outspoken and engaging narrator whose journal entries and letters dictate the harrowing adventure that ensues. The juxtaposition between Lilli’s education – necessary to the very narration of the story — and her experiential naiveté presents challenges, though. At times, especially early in the story, Lilli seems too mature for her age and circumstance, and she seems to possess knowledge that wouldn’t necessarily appear in her studies or home/church environment. Perhaps I found Lilli’s fast transition into womanhood too abrupt, as I wondered – given her wide-eyed innocence at the onset – why Lilli didn’t wallow longer in her feelings for her departed lover, or fumble more in her new maternal responsibilities as all new mothers do, regardless of class or era.
This minor quibble though did not deter from Lilli’s gripping narrative. Historical fiction has the ability to educate as well as entertain, and this book accomplishes both, masterfully. While I found Benton’s dive into the wet-nursing profession tragically fascinating, what surprised me most about Lilli’s story was the obvious yet seldom individualized power of the written word. While money was indeed integral to survival, this novel brilliantly depicts the currency of literacy; the importance of mail, the independence derived from writing for one’s self, the clout of formal documents, the often dire need to read simple instructions, and the weight of official signatures. Almost every life and death decision Lilli faced relied upon words on paper, and every character in Lilli de Jong no matter sex or status, was somehow motivated to action by the written word.
All said, this well-written and timely tome, will leave you on the edge of your seat, in awe, and thankful for modern-day communication.
Natasha Larimer holds a Ph.D. in American History from the University of Wisconsin. She makes her home in Mt. Airy with her husband and two children.