Meet Janet Benton, author of Lilli de Jong, on Sunday, June 18th at 6:30pm!
Lilli de Jong
A young woman finds the most powerful love of her life when she gives birth at an institution for unwed mothers in 1883 Philadelphia. She is told she must give up her daughter to avoid lifelong poverty and shame. But she chooses to keep her. This novel is her diary.
Pregnant, left behind by her lover, and banished from her Quaker home and teaching position, Lilli de Jong enters a charity for wronged women to deliver her child. She is stunned at how much her infant needs her and at how quickly their bond overtakes her heart. Mothers in her position face disabling prejudice, which is why most give up their newborns. But Lilli can’t accept such an outcome. Instead, she braves condemnation and ruin in a quest to keep herself and her baby alive.
Confiding their story to her diary as it unfolds, Lilli takes readers from an impoverished charity to a wealthy family's home to the streets of a burgeoning American city. Drawing on rich history, Lilli de Jong is both an intimate portrait of loves lost and found and a testament to the work of mothers. "So little is permissible for a woman," writes Lilli, "yet on her back every human climbs to adulthood."
Praise for Lilli de Jong
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“In the forthright prose of its eponymous heroine, Benton’s heartrending debut novel gives voice to the plight of unwed mothers in late-19th-century Philadelphia. . . . the book offers a distressing window into the intersections of motherhood, independence, faith, and class at a time when even affluent white women had little control over their lives. 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.” Most poignant are the heartfelt depictions of the dualities of motherhood, “a land where pain and joy are ever mingled and where… every move has consequence.” Lilli’s inspiring power and touching determination are timeless.”
— PUBLISHERS WEEKLY, March 2017
“Lilli’s story of poverty and anguish reminds readers that they needn’t always reach for dystopian sci-fi for depictions of horrifying injustice. While Lilli’s struggles may initially raise sentiments about how far we’ve come, in the end the reader will likely think, “Or perhaps not.” The challenges she faces to keep custody of her daughter, earn a living and find safe childcare descend into the hellish, yet they have clear parallels for the modern parent, single or attached. 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. ”
— Jaclyn Fulwood, SHELF AWARENESS, April 2017
“In a style reminiscent of Geraldine Brooks, [Benton] seamlessly weaves accurate historical detail as well as disturbing societal norms into the protagonist’s struggles. A diary as a literary device can be both trying for the reader and a restrictive device for an author to wield, but Benton pulls it off with grace. . . . [What a] monumental accomplishment the novel achieves. Benton holds a mirror up to the past and in doing so, illustrates how far we have come as well as how far we have yet to go. An absorbing debut from a writer to watch.”
— KIRKUS REVIEWS, March 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 NYT bestselling author of ORPHAN TRAIN and A PIECE OF THE WORLD
“A powerful, authentic voice for a generation of women whose struggles were erased from history. A heart-smashing debut that completely satisfies.”
— Jamie Ford, bestselling author of HOTEL ON THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEET
“Sentence by carefully-crafted sentence, Benton ensnares the reader . . . ”
— Martha Anne Toll, THE MILLIONS, March 2017
From Janet's website
Janet Benton began writing early and has worked hard to give books a central place in her life. Her family history has made her highly aware of the power of the mother-infant bond and of the need to stand up for outcasts. She holds an M.F.A. in English/fiction writing from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and a B. A. in religious studies from Oberlin College. After working at magazines, newspapers, and publishers and teaching writing at four universities, she began The Word Studio (www.thewordstudio.us) to offer workshops and mentoring to writers. She's also a mother, wife, singer, and person who gets teary-eyed when she sees kindness or cruelty.
- ESSAY, "In storytelling, finding joy and understanding" (my title had been "The Weight of a Story), in Sunday Commentary section, March 19, 2017, in the Philadelphia Inquirer.
- ESSAY, "A Feminist's Daughter Finds Love in the Kitchen," October 6, 2013: "On Mother’s Day last spring, my 10-year-old daughter listed some things she loves about having me as her mother." Read more in the New York Times.
STORY, "Instructions for Failure," 2013 Pushcart Prize nominee: "Day after day the frogs stayed nearly motionless, the male on the female's back, his front legs wrapped around her neck, her front legs clinging to the rim of one of the old bathtubs we'd made into lily ponds." Read more in Switchback.
- STORY, "The Reason I'm Here," Fall 2013: "My parents grew up in New York City apartment buildings where adults whispered of genocide and war." Read more starting on page 92 of Tulane Review.
ESSAY, "In the Name of Fairness, Don't Erase Women's History," lead piece in Sunday Commentary section, March 20, 2016. Read in the Philadelphia Inquirer.
- DOCUMENTARY, script co-writer for "Promise for a Better City (1944-1964)." Episode 3 in the series Philadelphia: The Great Experiment. Aired on 6ABC. Click title to watch.
- DOCUMENTARY, script editor and team member for "Fever: 1793." Episode 2 in the series Philadelphia: The Great Experiment. Aired on 6ABC. Winner of three Mid-Atlantic Emmy Awards. Click title to watch.
- MOCK-REJECTION of Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel about an unwed mother, The Scarlet Letter. Published in Writer's Digest in 2016.