Homophobic politics meshes with a woman’s memory of the Holocaust in this debut novel dealing with moral panic.
In 2009, Ludka Zeilonka, an octogenarian art professor in Hampshire, Massachusetts, looks back on a past packed with tragedy and intrigue. As a Polish Roman Catholic in the anti-Nazi underground during World War II, she spirited Jewish children out of the Warsaw ghetto, one of whom, Izaak, became her husband. She’s still carrying a torch for her lost wartime lover Oskar and hiding a famous portrait of Chopin that she smuggled out of the country. A new season of persecution erupts around her when her gay grandson, Tommy, is fired from his high school teaching position for assigning gay-themed literature to his Advanced Placement English class. The action is part of a homophobic campaign ginned up by the fundamentalist Redeemer Fellowship Church and its studiedly avuncular pastor, Royce Leonard, along with his followers in the state legislature and on the school board. The furor embroils Tommy’s father, a powerful state senator estranged from his family by his relentless political calculations, and escalates as the teacher is savagely beaten and Ludka and Izaak face harassing phone calls and bricks through their windows. Meanwhile, Oskar’s grandson contacts Ludka, raising her hopes of a reunion but also threatening to expose her for art theft. The politics of Dempsey’s saga don’t ring very true: it’s hard to imagine anti-gay pogroms gaining traction in modern-day liberal Massachusetts, and the insistent comparison with the horrors of the Warsaw ghetto is heavy-handed. Fortunately, Dempsey treats the human dimension of her story with nuance and skill. She crafts complex, compelling characters on all sides, including a conservative talk radio host who supports Leonard’s campaign but is troubled by the ensuing violence and delves into the sense of grievance among Christians who feel oppressed by, well, having to read gay-themed literature. She grounds the narrative in evocative prose that conveys mood and psychology through realistic, precisely observed details—“She rose, took a healthy swallow of vodka to ballast herself, then tried to ignore the way the tumbler wobbled as she lowered it to the side table”—and makes a potentially melodramatic tale feel absorbing and real.
A gripping and sensitive portrait of ordinary people wrestling with ideological passions.