This Is How It Begins

A Novel

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Pub Date 29 Sep 2017 | Archive Date 25 Jan 2018


“In a time when religious liberty is on trial, This Is How It Begins is an extraordinarily pertinent novel dripping in suspense and powerful scenes of political discourse . . . a must read . . .” —Foreword (starred review)

“Beautifully written . . . an ambitious and moving debut novel.” —Lily King, the New York Times best-selling author of Writers & Lovers

A woman bearing a thorny secret. A man fighting for religious freedom. A battle neither saw coming.

Massachusetts, 2009. Ludka Zeilonka is relishing her emeritus status. With the horrors of World War II willfully buried in her past, the eighty-five year-old art professor doesn’t want to accept that there’s escalating cultural unrest in her adoptive country. But when her gay grandson is fired for allegedly silencing Christian kids in his classroom, she and her influential family are thrust into the center of a political firestorm.

Warren Meck is worried about his sons. Leading a statewide effort to protect free speech in public schools for Christian kids, the popular radio host is on the cusp of taking his fight to the State House. But when his carefully orchestrated campaign turns unexpectedly violent, he’s alarmed by suspicions that someone within his inner circle might be responsible. 

As the increasingly vicious conflict plays out on the public stage, Ludka wrestles with resurfacing memories . . . and the exposure of a well-guarded secret. And when Meck identifies the culprit behind the violence, he faces an unbearable choice that could jeopardize his family's future. 

Can these two come to grips with unwelcome truths in time to make a stand in the final political showdown? 

This Is How It Begins is an emotionally gripping literary novel. If you like even-handed stories about hot-button social issues, rich character development, and thought-provoking narratives, then you'll love Joan Dempsey's captivating page-turner.
“In a time when religious liberty is on trial, This Is How It Begins is an extraordinarily pertinent novel dripping in suspense and powerful scenes of political discourse . . . a must read . . .” —...

A Note From the Publisher

New England native Joan Dempsey received an MFA and teaching certificate in creative writing from Antioch University, Los Angeles. 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. Dempsey was the recipient of a significant research grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation for her work on This Is How It Begins. She lives in Maine with her partner and their family of animals.

New England native Joan Dempsey received an MFA and teaching certificate in creative writing from Antioch University, Los Angeles. Her writing has been published in The Adirondack Review, Alligator...

Advance Praise

“ 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 REVIEWS (starred)


“A gripping and sensitive portrait of ordinary people wrestling with ideological passions.”



“Beautifully written … An ambitious and moving debut novel.”—LILY KING, author of the award-winning national bestseller, Euphoria


 “…timely, suspenseful and powerful….a provocative hit.”—Bill Bushnell, KENNEBEC JOURNAL AND MORNING SENTINEL


“…a thought-provoking and timely novel that connects the horrors of our political past to the current cultural climate, giving new relevance to the old adage, “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” A very relevant read that unites generations on themes of free speech and religious freedom.”—THE ADVOCATE.COM


"Dempsey’s fine debut, set in 2009, explores how hate, fear, and intolerance cast a lifelong shadow. Current events have only made this gripping story more relevant." —LIBRARY JOURNAL

“A remarkable novel full of characters on every side of the cultural divide, all imbued with genuine humanity … a riveting, 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

“Thoughtful people who reach opposing conclusions are at the all-too-human center of this gripping novel, a prescient road map for our times.”—Mary Rechner, author of Nine Simple Patterns for Complicated Women

“ . . . compelling story that seems to rise out of the rancor of current national headlines—about hate, bigotry, and intolerance.”—Frank O. Smith, author of Dream Singer, a Bellwether Prize finalist

“Dempsey brings her characters to life with equal parts empathy and tough-mindedness, from the three generations of the Zeilonka family – refugees, artists, politicians, teachers – to the pastor and radio host striving together to remake the United States into a Christian nation. 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

“ 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 REVIEWS...

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Featured Reviews

Only six years ago I saw a Christian church undergo a vicious split. It involved attacking the denomination for a social creed they deemed too liberal and the pastor as heretical for not leading their withdrawal from the denomination. Their main point of contention was over abortion, although they also were vocal about homosexuality. A majority of the church members left the denomination to start a community church, but first, they tried to take over, then destroy, the church they had been members of for many years. It was shocking how individuals viciously attacked others while professing a Bible-based faith. My husband was the pastor of that church. It was that experience that prompted me to request this novel. This Is How It Begins by Joan Dempsey was an emotional read, full of believable and fully realized characters, doctrinal idealists and victims of prejudice and hate. I loved how characters showed themselves to be different from what we expected from them. Art professor Ludka Zeilonka had survived Nazi Poland while saving Jewish children and hiding drawings documenting the occupation. She immigrated to America with her husband Izaac, who became the first Jewish attorney-general in Massachusetts. Their son Lolek is the state's most powerful senator, and his son Tommy is a well-liked high school English Teacher, married to lawyer Richard. Tommy, along with thirteen other teachers, were all fired on the same day. The one thing they have in common is their sexual orientation. Tommy and his family become the target of hate crimes of increasing violence. Influential Pastor Royce has an agenda and political ambitions. He is supported by radio host Warren Merck in a campaign to restore America to its Christian roots. They are behind the mass firing of teachers. Politically savvy, their defense is that Christian students feel marginalized and pressured against expressing their beliefs while being forced to accept the 'homosexual agenda' promoted by the fired teachers. Merck is appalled by the rising violence, Tommy beaten in front of his house and his grandparent's home set on fire. Ludka and Izaac return to their hometown in Poland, an emotional journey into a past they have tried to forget. Lukda finds the Jewish boy her family had protected and learns his devastating secret. Ludka suffers from post-traumatic stress syndrome. What is happening to Tommy is too much like what she experienced in Poland, too much like how the Holocaust began. The topic of the novel, sadly, is more relevant today than ever: How can conflicting belief systems learn to live together? What does it mean to be protected under the law? This is an amazing novel. I received a free ebook from the publisher in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

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Loved this book! It was a fast read for me, it drew me in and then I couldn't put it down. The only problem for me was the book ended! I wanted these people in my life I need to know what they are doing now. This book delves into subject matter that is front and center in our world today while looking back in history. This is a beautifully written novel. I plain to buy several copies to give to family and friends. Thank you for giving me a chance to fall in love with this work of art!

Was this review helpful? This is How It Begins is a very good book. I thought it was so good I read it twice. I will sometimes re-read books but usually after a good interval has passed. I think this may be the first that I have read a book twice within a few weeks. It is definitely the only one that I read twice before the book was released. It is that good. In a very readable fashion Joan Dempsey weaves a number of stories together. At the center of the book is Ludka Zeilonka, an eighty-five year old art professor, who has flashbacks to her youth in Nazi occupied Poland and her role in the Resistance while dealing with secrets from that time as well as contemporary issues including the firing of her grandson from his teaching position because of his homosexuality. In addition to being a good story, This is How It Begins is a very thought-provoking book. For example, I think no matter what your position is on homosexual teachers in public schools, you will gain a greater understanding of the opposite position. You may or may not change your mind, but you will re-examine your position and have a better understanding of other positions. The author brings you to this understanding by presenting both sides through well developed and often likeable characters, with whom the reader may empathize. I thank Netgalley for the chance to read this Advanced Reader Copy (ARC) of This is How It Begins which is to be released October 3. You might want to pre-order this book or add your name to the request list at your local library. You’ll be glad you did.

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In 1935, Sinclair Lewis wrote It Can’t Happen Here — a satire showing it sure can. With incredible ambition, Joan Dempsey follows Lewis’ example to illustrate urgent truths at a time of crisis. This Is How It Begins unites the “it” of the past with the “it” of today in ways people on the wrong side of history vigorously dispute. Most of the story is told by three generations of a remarkable family. The grandparents are Polish immigrants, a Catholic art professor and a Jewish lawyer who became the Massachusetts Attorney General. Their sons are a Chief of Police and the President of the Massachusetts Senate. Their grandson is a teacher, one who has been fired, along with ten other teachers, for infringing on their students’ religious expression. This reflects the current anti-gay movement opposing anti-bullying laws because not bullying infringes on students’ expression. Bigotry and intolerance are claimed as protected religious expression. It’s not fiction. The other main character is a religious radio personality who is part of the inner circle organizing a push to establish or, as the falsely claim, restore, America as a Christian Nation. It’s not hyperbole, look who won his election Tuesday night, a man who defied the Supreme Court twice, elevating his religious dogma over the Constitution and the Rule of Law. The grandmother recalls her past in Warsaw, revealing her secrets if only to herself. At first, she does not recognize how very much homophobia echoes anti-Semitism, but as the campaign gains ground, with an attack on her son, threatening phone calls, graffiti, and even arson, the similarities are unmistakable. She knows from her own experience that the Nazis did not start out with death camps, they started out by firing teachers. This Is How It Begins makes an earnest and high-minded effort to be fair-minded. Warren Meck, the radio host is sincere in his compassion for the teachers and their families. He is worried someone is directing the violence and the real love that motivates him is lost in the malice. However, if your religion requires you to be “resilient in the face of empathy” – if empathy is something you struggle against, then the problem is you. I want to mention one quality of This Is How It Begins I appreciate more than any other. Dempsey avoids the cheap cynicism of modern writers who assume anyone who is in politics is necessarily corrupted by it. Nearly everyone is sincere, the retired Attorney General, the Senate President, even the homophobe Meck is sincere. This story tackles the big question for people who value freedom and humanity. How does a tolerant society tolerate intolerance? Karl Popper argues tolerating intolerance ultimately leads to the eradication of tolerance by the intolerant. I think Ludka, the family matriarch would agree. This Is How It Begins will be released October 1st. I received an advance e-galley from the publisher, She Writes Press, through NetGalley.

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THIS IS HOW IT BEGINS is a book about bigotry, lies and surviving both. Given the current political climate, it is uncannily relevant.

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