Bravo to Joan Dempsey for crafting such a poignant, profound and incredibly relevant novel. This Is How It Begins is smart, human, and completely necessary for the tumultuous times that we now find ourselves in.
How to describe this novel…. it somehow successfully entwines free speech, tolerance, the Holocaust, and the impact of fine art. It delves into the roots of homophobia, the fear of what’s different, the poor logic of hate, and the remarkable art of reason. This book touched me on intellectual and emotional levels in equal measure. The humanity of this story leaps from every single page.
The novel pivots around a brilliant and brave woman; eighty-five year old Ludka Zeilonka. Ludka is a wonderful and insightful art history professor whose roots reach back to the horrors of the Holocaust. She is suddenly pulled into a political storm when her grandson Tommy is one of several gay Massachusetts teachers who is fired for allegedly discriminating against Christian kids in their classrooms. Beating the drum of religious freedom is radio personality Warren Meck, who is backed by the right, and by a local pastor whose preaching is careful not to come across as full-blown hate speech. Their collective goal is political in nature, as they push a religious bill through tight political channels. This bill is nothing more than bigotry shrouded in legalese, but their movement is gaining steam.
Ludka’s family, however, is not one that should be trifled with. They are well known, respected and politically esteemed. They represent three generations of success. Not every family begins with polish immigrant grandparents who are a professor and a lawyer. That lawyer becomes the Massachusetts Attorney General. Their sons include a powerful Massachusetts Senator and a respected member of the police. Their grandson is an accomplished High School English teacher. If ever there was a family that would not sit idle while a group of teachers is fired under the guise of religious freedom, this is it. The legal battle begins.
While this plot line alone is enough to keep you turning the pages, along comes Ludka’s haunting past. Something from her years in the Warsaw ghetto has just roosted in the present, and she must decide what to do about her decades-long secret. A stranger who is linked to this painful past bursts onto the scene, threatening to expose Ludka for illegally hoarding a painting of great value. This painting was originally believed to have been stolen by the Nazis, and Ludka is consumed by understandable fear. There is only one other person who knows about this painting, and Ludka has been trying to find him for sixty years.
And the plot thickens.
In the middle of the legal fight, violence ensues. Tommy is attacked. Ludka’s home is attacked. Tempers flare, and Warren Meck must determine if these attacks are coming from his own inner circle. Is he the voice of a religion-based dialogue, or is he leading the charge for homophobia and intolerance? If his hunch is correct, how far is he willing to go to push forth his political agenda? Is any price worth paying?
I could go one for paragraphs about all the topics this novel addresses. And believe me – it addresses them head-on. But if I keep going, I’ll give away too much. This would be a shame, since Dempsey’s writing deserves every bit of attention that you can offer it. It’s not only a good read, it’s an important one.
Especially now. When so many people have stopped having civil discussions about differences, the themes of this book suggest that hope is on the horizon. It does so with candor, emotion, wisdom and a beautifully developed cast of memorable characters.
In other words, if I were a High School teacher, I would assign this book.
5 stars for This Is How Is Begins, and just a little optimism that this kind of intelligence will pervade our community conscience once again.