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This Is How It Begins

Compulsively readable, This Is How It Begins is a novel about free speech, the limits of tolerance, and the bitter consequences of long-buried secrets. 


“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 Begins is an essential story for our time.”

—Matthew Goodman, New York Times-bestselling author of Eighty Days



In 2009, 85-year-old art professor Ludka Zeilonka gets drawn into a political firestorm—her grandson is among a group of gay high school teachers fired over concerns that they’re silencing Christian kids in the classroom. As both sides battle to preserve their respective rights to free speech, the hatred on display raises the specter of Ludka’s WWII 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, part of a national movement by the fundamentalist community. Meck believes in working respectfully within the political system, so he’s alarmed and offended when his efforts are undermined by someone inciting violent action. 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 Ludka’s past shows up. He 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.

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.

Coming in October from She Writes Press

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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

“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