Popular 19thC French historian Jules Michelet believed that a nation’s history should not focus on its institutions and leaders but on its people, especially the poor, the dispossessed, the oppressed, what he called les silences de l’histoire In Lilli de Jong, a novel set in 19thC Philadelphia, Janet Benton gives one of those silent histories—the poor wet nurses serving the infants of the wealthy—a determined, anguished, heartrending voice that reveals as much about 19thC urban America as it does about her titular character.
Benton's novel is a must read for anyone who was moved by The Handmaid’s Tale. While Atwood’s novel takes its readers to a dystopian future and fictionalizes an authoritarian patriarchal society that harshly subjugates women, Benton’s novel is a stark reminder that a mere three or four generations ago, our ancestors lived in that world. Unlike Atwood’s Offred, Benton’s Lilli has no Mayday resistance network to give her hope. Her plight is that of an unmarried mother who is stigmatized as immoral by a society that holds blameless the complicit men. A particularly devastating theme running through the book is that these women are frequently victims of abuse at the hands and attitudes of other women as well.
Lilli’s Dickensian travails through the historically accurate mean streets of 1880’s Philadelphia rend both the heart and the head. Lilli’s faith and will to survive are tested at every turn. Were the book purely a work of speculative fiction, it might be possible to read it from a comfortable distance and flip the page to find out what happens next. But knowing that the neighborhoods, the privation, the prejudice, the almshouse/hospital where 85-100% of foundlings died, the resource-starved Haven for wronged women and their infants…knowing they were all real boggles the mind. Despite Lilli’s preternatural ability to praise the rare, small kindnesses she encounters during her odyssey, her diary is a powerful and poetic testament to human kind’s inhumanity and the ease with which we are capable of vilifying and victimizing even a mother’s inextinguishable love for her child.