As a Californian, it is hard for me to imagine twelve teachers in the San Francisco Bay Area getting fired because of their sexual preference. It doesn't make sense, yet the part of my brain lurking beneath my beliefs knows it could happen. Especially now.
After all, the Holocaust started because some people weren't watching when Hitler rose to power and the Nazis took away the rights of gays as well as Jews. The more I read, the more I appreciated that Joan Dempsey's This is How it Begins is unnerving because the potential for such discrimination could be real right now—especially if we aren't watching, commenting, and guarding against it.
In Dempsey's story, the charges against Tommy, who allegedly silenced Christian students in his high school English classroom, are a fabrication. But when I was a high school teacher, I saw a couple of devoutly Christian students turn every essay, every story, and every comment they made into Christian testimony, often avoiding the question I asked whether they meant to or not. Where does belief end and brainwashing begin? Dempsey's book explores these questions on more than one level.
Tommy's grandmother, eighty-five-year-old art professor, Ludka Zeilonka, still remembers the Nazis persecuting the Jews and her Catholic family protecting them. All these years later, she's still protecting a secret of her own: she's hiding valuable art, stolen from the Nazis who stole from Jews.
Of course she's appalled by Tommy's dismissal, but she has her own problems to contend with. A stranger who knows what she's hiding threatens to expose her, and that raises her anxiety level further. That, and the probability that he's related to a very old friend, are nearly too much for her to contend with.
This is a book about recognizing and confronting labels and the discrimination they cause. It's about seeing shifts in our beliefs that can change the course of history by doing whatever it takes, legal and fair or not, to get what you want. Sound familiar? It is an eerie mirror of more than one country operating in the world today. And it's a warning. People who let go of either free speech or empathy for opposing viewpoints will pay the price.
Dempsey weaves the two stories together with skill and insight. Her writing stimulates one's imagination as well as one's social conscience. She is the 2017 fiction winner of the Maureen Egan Writer's Exchange Award, which is administered through Poets and Writers. Her ideas and point of view, as well as her award, make her a writer worth watching, and This is How it Begins is a novel worth reading.
Read an excerpt from this book.
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 Plentitude Magazine, and aired on National Public Radio. She received a research grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation for her work on This is How it Begins. Visit her website.
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