BookBrowse Reviews This Is How It Begins by Joan Dempsey

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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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This Is How It Begins is a timely novel about free speech, the importance of empathy, and the bitter consequences of long-buried secrets.

Joan Dempsey's superb debut carries a chill; a raised-hairs-on-the-back-of-your-neck kind of undertone that haunts and lingers long after the novel's final sentence.

This is How it Begins opens as art history professor Ludka Zeilonka presses her graduate students at a Massachusetts college to "see" what is missing from a famous (fictional) painting. The painting depicts a street scene in Poland, a snapshot of people going about their daily business at the outset of World War II. It features a small boy, a busker with his bow poised over his violin. The painting is vaguely unsettling, more so to some students than to others, and what is most interesting is how the painting disturbs different individuals. But it is the observation of one of her more astute students that strikes the octogenarian teacher deeply. He notes that there is not a single book in sight.

Indeed, for Ludka, the Polish immigrant and WWII survivor who has viewed the painting innumerable times, this observation makes the painting resonate on a much deeper level. She has to "shut her eyes against the sudden pulsing of the cavernous room's pale walls," and she fears lapsing into one the dissociative fugue states she's recently been having.

It's hard to pinpoint exactly what has been triggering what Ludka and her husband Izaac, former Massachusetts Attorney General, refer to as her "episodes." Dempsey's touch is light as she alludes to the Christian fundamentalist church that has taken over an abandoned movie theater building within sight of Ludka's own St Hedwig's Catholic Church, but the implication is there as a subplot develops around the charismatic fundamentalist Pastor Royce Leonard and his vision of "Restoring Our Christian Nation." His vision comes complete with charts, graphs and individual devoted followers placed in strategic positions on local community governing boards and all the way up to state officials.

Soon the local school board, concurrent with ten other school boards throughout Massachusetts, fire nearly a dozen teachers – one of whom is Ludka and Isaac's grandson Tommy Zeilonka – for "conduct unbecoming." The fired teachers are all gay. All are accused of trying to foist what members of Pastor Royce's church refer to as a "homosexual agenda" on the school children. All of the fired teachers refute the charges, but none so vehemently as advance placement literature teacher Tommy and his highly political family. With his former Attorney General grandfather and current State Senate President father Lolak Zeilonka in his corner, Tommy prepares to challenge his opposition.

Throughout the novel Dempsey raises frightening parallels between discrimination Ludka and Izaac endured in war torn Poland and present day fundamental evangelistic behaviors and attitudes. Izaac was nine "when his [Jewish] father had come home from the university in tears, not just the quiet, constricted tears of a man but the mucous-wracked weeping of a terrified child. Izaac hadn't yet understood what his father already knew; the Nazi decree that destroyed his livelihood was only the beginning."

In their zeal to install theocracy as the law of the United States under the guise of their perceived suppression of fundamentalist Christian values, Tommy's opponents range from reasonable to violent. Already beyond losing his livelihood, Tommy and his whole family begin to suffer physical and property damage as well as threatening phone calls because of their influence over the school board. These plot arcs allow Dempsey to explore the ways small local acts attempt to convert a whole secular nation to one run under rule by religion.

Dempsey's choice to imbue her characters with motives ranging the gamut from light to dark creates a fine literary chiaroscuro that enriches the reading experience. I truly enjoyed This is How it Begins' timely examination of the disturbing potential for desecularization of our Democracy.

Reviewed by Donna Chavez

This review first ran in the November 1, 2017 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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