Last summer I read and reviewed the wonderful book, Lilli de Jong, by Janet Benton. You can read my thoughts on the book in my review I posted last year, right here. I really enjoyed this historical fiction title about an unwed mother in 1883 Pennsylvania who is banished from her Quaker home, and yet, never gives up her fight.
Many others enjoyed it as well as it acquired numerous accolades following its release such as being an finalist for The Langum Prize in American Historial Fiction 2017, a GoodReads Semifinalist, Choice Awards 2017, in Historical Fiction, and many more which you can find below.
Now, in celebration of the paperback release last week, with a new cover you can see below, Janet stops by the site for an interview. Congratulations, Janet!
Readers, enjoy the interview – it’s fascinating! Come on by and enjoy the discussion and a cool drink with us.
Hi Janet! Welcome to Oh, for the Hook of a Book! I’m glad you could drop by Ohio today, which isn’t far from you, we are neighbors to the Pennsylvania folks. In fact, I meant to tell you I saw that you went to college at Oberlin. I live just 45 minutes from there and frequent it often. Such a wonderful place.
Can I interest you in some peach iced tea? If you’d prefer another drink, let me know what you’d like. We could sit on the porch since it is summer, but not so hot at the moment. My 14-year-old has been baking muffins over summer break. Mostly blueberry.
Janet: Thanks, Erin! Lovely to know you’re near Oberlin. I haven’t returned since graduation but hope to do so in 2018.
Erin: Have a seat and I’ll pour the iced tea. Let’s talk about your book, Lilli de Jong. This was your debut novel, but yet, you seem like such a seasoned writer. As an editor, both freelance and for a publisher, I read and edit many books and submissions. So I say it with all honesty that your debut work was written with an experienced hand. Have you been writing awhile? When did you start to write Lilli?
Janet: I’ve been telling stories since before I could write, and I’ve spent three decades so far as an editor, writer, and teacher of writing, so I’ve got a lot of experience with words. I started to write Lilli, in tiny bits, a few lines now and then, about a dozen years before the novel was finished.
Erin: I know most writers don’t want to be asked about their inspiration, but I truly would love to let readers into your mind. How did you decide to write this book?
Janet: While I had a newborn baby, I began to learn about mothers of the past, including unwed mothers who were forced by prejudice to give up their newborns, most of whom died. I also learned about the profession of wet nursing and found out that many unwed mothers became wet nurses as a way to earn a living, since they had milk. A voice began to come to me while I was nursing my baby! I go into much more detail in the author’s note at the end of the novel.
Erin: In your research, what was the one item you had most trouble pinning down or working into the puzzle or plot of the novel (without giving spoilers)?
Janet: I’m afraid the one thing that comes to mind would be a spoiler!
Erin: You researched in Germantown. What was that like now as compared to then? What did you find most fascinating?
Janet: There are many buildings still standing that Lilli would have seen (if she had been a real person) in 1883. But many more are gone—and most of all, the meadows, farms, and other relatively open spaces—even ponds and streams—are gone. The area had more small factories then, though, which no doubt created noise and pollution. Overall, it’s less prosperous now, and a lot more crowded.
Erin: I feel this book is so important to our generation and future generations in terms of women’s rights. What is your public stance on various portions of women’s rights and what do you hope to have readers learn about them through your book?
Janet: I am a committed feminist, which means I believe that someone’s sex should not affect their life prospects. I also know that our culture has to do a better job of supporting motherhood, with paid parental leave (for fathers, too) and many other ways of lessening the lifelong financial penalties that mothers pay.
Erin: Your character development is so strong. How did you get into their mind, especially those of Quakers, to really make Lilli and the others come alive off the page?
Janet: That’s the writer’s job—if you can’t do that, you won’t have much of a story. In the case of this novel, though, I only had to get into Lilli’s mind, since she is telling the story in her diary. Her mind and heart were places I loved finding my way into and living in while writing!
Erin: I felt so close to Lilli by the end and so admired her courage and strength. I am the mother of three and not once did I think I wouldn’t do the same! And yet, for so many women it was so much worse even that what it ended up for Lilli. What stories did you come across that hurt your heart for women of this time period? How do you hope your work helps to share their trials?
Janet: Congratulations on being the mother of three! So many aspects of women’s lives at that time hurt my heart greatly. They couldn’t vote, for one thing. They were paid drastically less than men—the difference was even greater than it is today. Many working women were so poor—working six or seven days a week, 12-hour days—that they could hardly buy food and pay rent on a shared room. And if married, they faced issues related to keeping their earnings, getting a divorce, home ownership, rights to children, and so on. It was also terrible to read how restricted women’s lives were—public speaking was considered shameful, for instance, though many powerful women did it anyway, such as Lucretia Mott, the Grimke sisters, and Sojourner Truth. We still don’t have an Equal Rights Amendment guaranteeing women equal rights in all aspects of civic life.
Erin: What plans do you have for more novels? Yes, I am hoping you write some!
Janet: I have several novels in process. I hope to be able to focus on a certain one, which at this point takes place in the present day, by December 2017—after three more months of frequent book events.
Erin: If you didn’t already answer, I saw that you have a degree in religion. I am assuming this helped you choose making your character, Lilli, a Quaker, but do you think you’ll write more books that have a religious bent?
Janet: I think it’s safe to say that everything I write is concerned with issues of meaning, such as, How do we make sense of suffering? What makes life worthwhile? What lessons do we learn from experience? What are our obligations to humans and the earth? How can we love one another better? What do we owe in exchange for this gift of life?
Erin: Also, I am curious, in studying religion, sometimes those seeped in religion did the most judging to the character in your book. How do we bring compassion to everyday lives now instead of judgment? How do we learn from the past?
Janet: Good questions! I think we learn from the past by imagining the lives of those who came before us—imagining them as full, real people, not so different from us. And as far as bringing compassion instead of judgement to what we see in our everyday lives, there’s a powerful message in the expression “There but for the grace of God go I.” Whether we think of God or fate or happenstance as the grace here, we could have ended up in the same difficult circumstance, had we faced the same challenges all along. This is always an accurate awareness to have in the face of others’ suffering. If you take that message to heart, it’s difficult not to have compassion.
Erin: Thanks so much for stopping by Janet. You’re welcome back anytime so keep me abreast of any new releases! Let’s have another blueberry muffin while we enjoy the summer breeze.
Janet: Thanks so much for inviting me, Erin! And thanks to your fourteen-year-old for the blueberry muffins.
Lilli de Jong by Janet Benton
Publication Date: May 16, 2017 (Hardcover)
Paperback: July 10, 2018
Nan A. Talese
Hardcover & eBook; 352 Pages
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.
Pregnant, left behind by her lover, and banished from her Quaker home and teaching position, Lilli de Jong enters a home 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 moral condemnation and financial 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, Accolades, Awards –
- One of Library Journal‘s Best Books 2017, Historical Fiction
- One of National Public Radio’s Best Books of 2017
- Bustle, The 17 Best Debut Novels by Women in 2017
- Finalist, The Langum Prize in American Historical Fiction 2017
- A Goodreads Semifinalist, Choice Awards 2017, Historical Fiction
- One of Amazon’s Best Books of May 2017 in Literature/Fiction
- Book Club Books 2017, selected for InStyle UK by Erin Woodward, Girly Book Club
- One of Pure Wow Book Club’s Books to Read in May
- One of Barnes and Noble’s Nook Book READOUTS in Fiction
- Summer Book Pick from Book Bub, libraries, newspapers, and others.
- Best Historical Fiction 2017: 22 Books You Don’t Want to Miss
- 18 New Historical Fiction Novels to Read with Your Book Club
- The Biggest Debut Novels 2017: Breakthrough Books to Add to Your List
Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Books-a-Million | iTunes | IndieBound | Kobo | Powell’s
Praise for Lilli de Jong
“Lilli de Jong, discharged from her teaching job and banished from Quaker meetings because of her father’s selfish choice, finds comfort in the affections of her father’s apprentice, Johan. The night before he leaves to embark on a new life, she succumbs to his embrace with his promise that he will send for her. Soon thereafter, a pregnant Lilli finds herself shunned and alone, her only option a Philadelphia charity for wronged women. Knowing that she must relinquish her newborn, she is unprepared for the love that she feels for her daughter. Lilli quickly decides to fight to keep her, but in 1883 that means a life of hardship and deprivation. Telling Lilli’s story in diary form, debut author Benton has written a captivating, page-turning, and well-researched novel about the power of a mother’s love and the stark reality of the choices she must make. VERDICT A great choice for book clubs and readers of Geraldine Brooks.” – Library Journal, Starred Review
“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
“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
“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.” —Kirkus Reviews
“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.” —Publishers Weekly
“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.” —Booklist
“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
“A confident debut . . . Sentence by carefully-crafted sentence, Benton ensnares the reader.” —The Millions
Author Janet Benton, Biography
Janet Benton’s work has appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Glimmer Train, and many other publications. She has co-written 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.