Book Review: Author explores the intersection of religious freedom and human rights in ‘This Is How It Begins’

Karina Wetherbee
Special to the Daily
Joan Dempsey, author of "This Is How It Begins."
Special to the Daily |

When writing a novel built around politically charged topics, great finesse is needed to avoid stereotypical treatments of potentially polarizing figures, as abusing stereotypes only diminishes the strength of characters and the sincerity of a narrative. Author Joan Dempsey’s recent book, “This Is How It Begins,” maintains that vitally delicate and nuanced approach, even as it tackles the very timely and contentious subject of religious freedom and its frequent contradiction with fundamental human rights.

To build an even more complex story, Dempsey adds an historical dimension to her modern tale, embodied in her dynamic and complicated main character, Ludka Zeilonka, an elderly college art professor, who, in her younger years worked as a member of the Polish Resistance during World War II. Ludka carries her Polish Catholic upbringing very closely, even though she is married to one of the young Jews she sheltered in Warsaw during the war, when her role in the Resistance cost her the lives of her own parents.

Ludka also carries a secret, a burden that has haunted her since those distant days in 1940s Europe.

But, she is used to holding things in confidence, having kept hunted youths safe, as well as protected Jewish art left behind when the Nazis emptied the ghettos.

In 2009, when the story is set, Ludka still struggles with the memories of those traumatic times, as glaringly familiar external forces are threatening to tear apart the successful lives she and her family have built. Her husband, Izaac, is a former Massachusetts attorney general, her son, Lolek, is a popular state senator, and her grandson, Tommy, is a high school English teacher, who also happens to be gay. When Tommy and nearly a dozen other homosexual teachers in the school district are fired because of complaints of “conduct unbecoming,” an alarming sense of déja vu overcomes Ludka and Izaac, who have both seen similar actions in their homeland so many years ago.

With themes pulled straight from contemporary headlines, Dempsey approaches the fundamental yet often discordant topics of free speech, religious freedom and human rights, and she manages to build a narrative in which all sides are given personable, realistic and sympathetic characterizations.

On the one side of the cultural conflict is Ludka and her family, raised to be familiar with the notion that terrible and far-reaching events, like the Holocaust, often begin as small embers of anger and divisiveness in people’s hearts and minds — Izaac’s own father was fired from his job for being Jewish — then he was killed for it.

On the other side of the debate is the charismatic Pastor Royce, who is committed to driving an initiative that he hopes will bring America back to what he sees as its Christian roots. At his side is his loyal acolyte, conservative radio host, Warren Meck, who is a highly ambitious man who sees himself as motivated from his own perception of a moral center.

Dempsey writes Meck as reasonable and sympathetic, and avoids painting him as a more traditional hot-headed agitator.

Dempsey approaches the notions of idealism and faith, and weaves them against the notoriously corruptive nature of politics and power. Characters on all sides are well-rounded, personable and realistic, and all of them genuinely flawed. Dempsey also manages to find the balancing point for the two perspectives at the center of the teacher-firing cases. She avoids the conventional trap of allowing conspicuous opinion to steer the story, allowing, instead, her well-rounded characters to represent the very real human costs that come with intolerance of any kind.

Dempsey’s choice to overlay a complex historical perspective upon a very authentic and contemporary depiction of the dangerous fallout of dogmatic cultural initiatives makes “This Is How It Begins” a profoundly valuable book for readers of all ages.

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

As a Summit Daily News reader, you make our work possible.

Summit Daily is embarking on a multiyear project to digitize its archives going back to 1989 and make them available to the public in partnership with the Colorado Historic Newspapers Collection. The full project is expected to cost about $165,000. All donations made in 2023 will go directly toward this project.

Every contribution, no matter the size, will make a difference.