Excerpt from This Is How It Begins by Joan Dempsey, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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This Is How It Begins

by Joan Dempsey

This Is How It Begins by Joan Dempsey X
This Is How It Begins by Joan Dempsey
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    Oct 2017, 399 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Donna Chavez

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1
The Roslan

In her favorite gallery of the Baldwin Museum in Hampshire, Massachusetts, Ludka Zeilonka spun around to face her honors class, fast enough that one of the young men gasped. She staggered backward and flung out an arm, ostensibly to make a sweeping introduction to Alexander Roslan's most famous painting—Prelude, 1939—but in truth to brace a hand against the wall to avoid falling. Ludka was keenly aware of how she appeared to others, not because she was vain or insecure, but because she was long accustomed to the consequences of casting particular impressions. In this case—a dazzling and hip, if ancient and somewhat tough professor.

In a stage whisper too loud for the museum, she demanded that they tell her what they see. This was unfair. She wanted them to see what wasn't in the painting: legible signage, playful children, well-stocked grocers' bins, churches, and eye contact among the ordinary people going about their lives. On loan from the National Museum of Warsaw, the canvas was as long as a train car, as tall as an average-sized man, and the street scene painted on it covered two city blocks, one of which was dominated by a synagogue.

The Roslan depicted what could have been any European city, but Ludka knew it was Warsaw, not only because Roslan had still lived there in '39, but because Ludka had, too. Without the title you could miss the point altogether, but that was part of Roslan's genius, part of what made him a master; the prelude was the true invasion, incremental and insidious, possible anywhere.

Ludka still felt a bit off, and in the guise of stepping back to get distance from the painting, she moved past the students and sat carefully on a tufted black leather bench. Will, a tall and talented junior who'd been exceptional enough as a painter to get into her graduate class, and who'd made himself known to her on the first day by pumping her hand as if she were a wrestling coach—a welcome if somewhat jolting occurrence after so many years of assumed fragility—stepped up to the painting and squinted at the adjacent title mounted on the wall. His jeans were tight and too short, very Eastern European and a refreshing break, Ludka thought, from the hanging bulks of denim slouching around campus. He absentmindedly flicked a finger back and forth along the half-dozen silver rings that cuffed his left ear as he ambled along the length of the painting.

"I see Will in the way," someone said. A few students laughed.

"The color is something," said Will. "It doesn't fit the mood."

Ludka nodded, then glared around at the rest of them. They said the usual: the light and shadows, the realism—it could be a photograph—the way you could almost hear the violin from the street busker, although they didn't use that word. The young busker looked so eerily familiar that Ludka often wondered if she'd seen him in Warsaw back in '39, playing near the merchants' stalls in Rynek Starego or by the central fountain among picnicking families in Ogród Saski, or if he was simply another manifestation of Roslan's genius, a sort of everyman who touched those who cared to see him.

Although they tried so hard to sound erudite, none of her students saw beyond what was obvious, and she just kept asking until every one of them stopped trying to impress her and finally fell silent. One painfully quiet, solitary young woman—Sophie, who dressed more plainly than the others—gave Ludka hope; Sophie hadn't stopped staring at the Roslan and hadn't reacted to her classmates. The girl seemed a bit stricken, and that was appropriate.

"Yes," Ludka whispered in her direction. Sophie appeared startled.

To the rest of the class Ludka said, "Now that you have stopped the guessing of what I might like to hear … see."

Excerpted from This Is How It Begins by Joan Dempsey. Copyright © 2017 by Joan Dempsey. Excerpted by permission of She Writes Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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