“This Is How It Begins” is Joan Dempsey’s carefully detailed presentation of how quickly opposing views can escalate toward violence and how easily in a heated political environment a peaceful, well-established democracy can turn into an oppressive regime. Borrowing from the politics and experiences of Nazi-occupied Poland, the novel is a reminder and a warning of how closely the present is connected to the past, and therefore can be recreated in the future. Dempsey is an award-winning writer who lives in New Gloucester. In this, her debut novel, her talent is evident.
Set in 2009, the story’s central figure is Ludka Zeilonka, an artist and art history professor in her 80s and a Polish survivor of World War II. Though 64 years have passed since the war, Ludka is still very careful to keep hidden the secret of her past, when she was known as Apolonia, an operative of Zegota, the real-life underground political group that saved thousands of Jews from the Nazis.
Together with Oskar, a fellow artist and Zegota member, she had conspired to hide and preserve precious works of art, including a famous Ambroży Mieroszewski painting of Polish composer Frederic Chopin, which Ludka has illegally kept hidden in her possession all this time. Oskar was captured and sent to the terrifying Pawiak Prison, and Ludka never saw or heard from him again until the unexpected arrival of Stanley, Oskar’s grandson, who comes to steal the Chopin and demand a ransom.
As Ludka’s secret personal past has come back around and threatens to be revealed, the ugly history of oppression and intolerance also seems to be repeating itself. A growing political campaign against a proclaimed “homosexual agenda” leads to the removal of several public school teachers who are openly gay. One of those fired is Ludka’s grandson, Tommy, whose father is president of the Massachusetts State Senate. Overnight, the Zeilonka family is deeply embroiled in a growing national debate that sparks threats and violence.
While the story is structured around Ludka, the author wisely shifts the focus in each chapter so readers get the background and perspectives of the other key characters, as well. This tactic allows her to effectively detail both sides of the issue and their respective strategies, as well as to create complex, well-rounded characters.
Rather than pitting her characters against each other to score political points, Dempsey takes pain to recognize the humanity of all of them. She does this particularly well with Warren Meck, a religious conservative radio host and an architect of a political effort to promote further protections of religious freedom. Introduced as talented, intelligent, hardworking and likable, he conducts himself with integrity and treats others with respect regardless of which side they are on. His fairly drawn character contributes much to the novel’s success.
Though the storyline is fictitious, the plot is chock-full of actual history, philosophical arguments and law. Thanks to a grant, Dempsey was able to spend time in Warsaw and in Washington D.C. researching Holocaust history and, clearly, she did her homework. Her sentences are packed with meticulous detail. The novel becomes a case study of human hypocrisy and how fine is the line between democracy and demagoguery.
Along with her diligent research, Dempsey deserves much praise for her rare choice to make an old woman the protagonist. Ludka is charming, strong and fierce, but most importantly, relevant. Her age is neither glossed over nor ignored; rather, it’s embraced. Her life experiences demand respect and garner legitimacy for the thesis of the novel, summed up when Ludka declares publicly: “This is not trifle! The Holocaust did not begin with the gassing of the Jews at camps. The Holocaust began here … The Holocaust began in the hearts of people.”
The true history and real-world politics and philosophies contained within “This Is How It Begins” make the book a great choice for a high school English class, book club or any reading circle where there is the opportunity for discussion. Though the suspense strung throughout the story often seems formulaic, the book maintains the reader’s curiosity and makes for a fast-paced, entertaining read. Don’t look for escape through fiction, though, as its substantive themes parallel many of the issues Americans are debating today.
Marae Hart is an emerging writer and graduate of Portland’s Salt Institute and can be contacted at: