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The BookBrowse Review

Published September 20, 2017

ISSN: 1930-0018

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Book Jacket

This Is How It Begins
by Joan Dempsey
3 Oct 2017
399 pages
Publisher: She Writes Press
ISBN-13: 9781631523083
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Compulsively readable, This Is How It Begins is a timely novel about free speech, the importance of empathy, and the bitter consequences of long-buried secrets.

In 2009, eighty-five-year-old art professor Ludka Zeilonka gets drawn into a political firestorm when her grandson, Tommy, is among a group of gay Massachusetts teachers fired for allegedly silencing Christian kids in high school classrooms. The ensuing battle to reinstate the teachers raises the specter of Ludka's World War II past - a past she's spent a lifetime trying to forget.

Radio host Warren Meck has been leading the Massachusetts campaign to root out anti-religious bias in public schools - but he believes in working respectfully within the political system, so he's alarmed and offended when his efforts are undermined by someone inciting violent action. Even worse, he fears the culprit is among his inner circle.

As Ludka's influential family defends Tommy under increasingly vicious conditions, a stranger with connections to her past shows up and threatens to expose her for illegally hoarding a valuable painting presumed stolen by the Nazis. Only one other person knew about the painting - a man Ludka's been trying to find for sixty years.

Winner, 2017 Poets & Writers Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award

"Starred Review. In a time when religious liberty is on trial, [this] is an extraordinarily pertinent novel dripping in suspense and powerful scenes of political discourse … a must-read ..." - Foreword

"…Dempsey's fine first novel [is] notable for the evenhanded way it addresses hot-button issues. The result is a timely and memorable story." - Booklist

"A gripping and sensitive portrait of ordinary people wrestling with ideological passions." - Kirkus

"Beautifully written, This Is How It Begins wrestles with the fundamental questions of our existence on this earth together. An ambitious and moving debut novel." - Lily King, author of the award-winning national bestseller Euphoria

"In this remarkable novel, Joan Dempsey brings together contemporary America and Holocaust-era Warsaw to tell a riveting tale of family secrets, civil rights, and the persistence of memory. Here are pastors and politicians, teachers and activists, historians and spies - all of them, on every side of the cultural divide, imbued with genuine humanity. This Is How It Beginsis an essential story for our time." - Matthew Goodman, New York Times bestselling author of Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland's History-Making Race Around the World

"This is How It Begins superbly demonstrates the clandestine nature of rescue, and the irony that those who ought to be rewarded for their conscience and courage remain hidden, and live in fear. Reading this moving adventure compels us to bear witness to the past and present and think about our own complacency to everyday discrimination in our midst." - Eva Fogelman, Phd, author of the Pulitzer Prize nominee Conscience and Courage: Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust

"A riveting story of the clash between LGBT and fundamentalist Christian cultures, and the way its violence reawakens historical trauma, this striking debut is essential reading for our times." - Judith Frank, author of All I Love and Know, a Lambda Literary Award Finalist

"Joan Dempsey's debut novel is a compelling story that seems to rise out of the rancor of current national headlines about hate, bigotry, and intolerance. The story has deep roots in the darkness of the horrific persecution and betrayal of Jews during World War II. Twin story lines, then and now, illuminate how close we yet remain to the hellish cauldron that fear enflames." - Frank O. Smith, author of Dream Singer, a Bellwether Prize finalist

"Joan Dempsey's debut novel explores the limits of empathy and the unpredictability of violence. Thoughtful people who reach opposing conclusions are at the all-too-human center of This Is How It Begins, a prescient road map for our times." - Mary Rechner, author of Nine Simple Patterns for Complicated Women

Winner of the 2017 Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award from Poets & Writers, New England native Joan Dempsey received an MFA and teaching certificate in creative writing from Antioch University, Los Angeles. Dempsey was the recipient of a significant research grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation for her work on This Is How It Begins.

Her writing has been published in The Adirondack Review, Alligator Juniper, Obsidian: Literature of the African Diaspora, and Plenitude Magazine, and aired on National Public Radio.

She lives in Maine with her partner and their family of animals. Find her online at

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