Beautifully written ... An ambitious and moving debut novel.” 

—LILY KING, author of the award-winning national bestseller, Euphoria



““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 (starred review)

“… Dempsey’s fine first novel [is] notable for the evenhanded way it addresses hot-button issues. The result is a timely and memorable story.” BOOKLIST

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

"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


  • Matthew Goodman Matthew Goodman
    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.


    —New York Times bestselling author of "Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elisabeth Bisland's History-Making Race Around the World"
  • Eva Fogelman, Ph.D. Eva Fogelman, Ph.D.
    Joan Dempsey’s spellbinding novel illuminates how the tides of history repeat themselves with different characters. When a group is targeted for discrimination there will be resisters and rescuers, but mostly bystanders. This is How It Begins superbly demonstrates the clandestine nature of rescue, and the irony that those who ought to be rewarded for their conscience and courage remain hidden, and live in fear. Reading this moving adventure compels us to bear witness to the past and present and think about our own complacency to everyday discrimination in our midst.


    —Author of the Pulitzer Prize nominee "Conscience and Courage: Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust"
  • Judith Frank Judith Frank
    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.


    —Author of "All I Love and Know," a Lambda Literary Award Finalist 
  • Frank O. Smith Frank O. Smith
    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.


    —Author of "Dream Singer," a Bellwether Prize finalist
  • Paddy Murphy Paddy Murphy
    This exquisitely drawn and timely novel will remind you why we have freedom of expression, ideas, sexuality and religion, and leave you wondering why we're so quick to forget the lessons of the past.


    —Material Pictures
  • Bill Lundgren Bill Lundgren
    Into these tumultuous and politically polarized times comes a beautifully wrought novel that plumbs the roots of bigotry, hatred and intolerance. This Is How It Begins makes it clear that we have been down this road before and we ignore the lessons of history at our own peril. A riveting, immensely satisfying read.


    —Co-author of Becoming (Other)wise: Enhancing Critical Reading Perspectives 
  • Mary Rechner Mary Rechner
    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.


    —Author of "Nine Simple Patterns for Complicated Women"
  • Bill Bushnell Bill Bushnell
    …timely, suspenseful and powerful … a provocative hit.


    Kennebec Journal and the Central Maine Morning Sentinel

What Readers Are Saying

Cathy Kodra of Knoxville, TN says "I can only say 'Wow!' and I mean it with my whole heart. You did an amazing job with this literary, page-turning novel. I've given it five stars on Goodreads.

If this doesn't become a NYT Bestseller, I'll never understand why. This is one of the best novels I've read in the past five years, and one that I feel will stay with me."

Diana Rigor says "… undeniably binge-worthy. I'm loving this book. Joan has hit it out of the park."

David Brightman, Ohio, says "I just finished the book last night—it is BRILLIANT. I love it. 'Well Done,' as the Brits would say ... I am not usually a fan of the intertwined then-and-now stories approach, but the author pulled it off so well I am completely won over. Brava!!!!!!

Barry Jandebeur, Bartlett, NH, says, "The language pops, the story is fluid and the characters are immediately real and familiar. Carry this book to your favorite reading spot. You'll be glad you did."

Debi Dixon from Greenwood, IN says, "Nothing quite like a lazy summer day and a carry-you-away novel. Loving this one!"

See and Hear More from Readers

About the Novel

Ludka Zeilonka is an 85-year-old art professor and member of an esteemed political family in Massachusetts. Her only troubles—at least on the surface—are protecting her renowned and delicate Polish contemporary art collection and that she gets cold in museums.

But then Ludka receives a disturbing phone message about a secret she has kept for more than sixty years. Shortly thereafter, her grandson, Tommy, is fired along with a handful of other gay teachers across the state for allegedly discriminating against Christian students in the classroom.

The teacher firings are the brainchild of Warren Meck, a deeply religious local radio host and father of three who is hoping to pass a religious freedom bill in Massachusetts. Meck favors achieving his goals through careful planning and legislation, and is concerned when violence erupts. But concern quickly turns to alarm when he realizes the violence may be being incited by those within his inner circle.

As a young Catholic woman in WWII Poland, Ludka joined the Resistance as an artist, her surviving drawings serving as testimony to Nazi crimes. Also, her family sheltered Jews, and her parents died because of it. As Ludka witnesses Tommy navigating the political firestorm that erupts over his job loss, she knows that what she sees doesn’t compare to her childhood. But she also recognizes the danger in dehumanizing a group of people. As the tensions escalate, she’s forced to decide once again to keep quiet or to act.

In this novel about free speech, family and secrets, Dempsey brilliantly depicts both sides without creating caricatures, emphasizing the importance of empathy in public discourse today. THIS IS HOW IT BEGINS is page-turning, thought provoking, and timely.