Friday, April 10, 2020

Monica Hesse's They Went Left, a propulsive novel set in postwar Europe

Zofia Lederman is eighteen when she’s liberated from the Gross-Rosen concentration camp in August 1945. Broken in body and spirit (she’s self-aware enough to admit “my mind is still soft”), she shuffles along as Red Cross workers process her information and release her to return home to the Polish city of Sosnowiec in the company of Dima, the Red Army soldier who rescued her.

Her one goal is to reunite with her younger brother, Abek, from whom she was separated at Birkenau. Zofia pours all her hope into the possibility that Abek still lives, since she knows her other relatives are dead. In 1942, after all the Jews from Sosnowiec were ordered to the soccer stadium by Nazi officials, their family was transported to Birkenau, where lines formed. She and Abek were sent to the right, towards a work camp, while her parents, grandmother, and aunt were directed left, into the gas chambers.

Written in straightforward prose, Monica Hesse’s propulsive novel has an extremely well-depicted setting, one which forms the backdrop of the mystery driving her protagonist. Post-World War II Poland and Germany are a chaotic mess, and with no central information repository, Holocaust survivors like Zofia must navigate through a maze of individual hospitals, relief organizations, and displaced-persons camps in their search for living relatives, while they’re still fragile from their own traumas. Locating one twelve-year old boy seems an impossible task, and there’s no guarantee Abek even made it out of Birkenau. Readers will know this, but Zofia can’t admit it.

Under these circumstances, how can anyone move forward? I admire how Hesse depicts, with humane sensitivity, a variety of characters working out the answer to this complicated question for themselves. Desperately following crumbs on her brother’s trail, Zofia courageously makes her way alone to Foehrenwald, an American-run displaced-persons camp in Bavaria, where she joins a community of young people rebuilding their shattered lives. Here, small roots are planted with the goal of growing future happiness. Zofia shares a cottage with the talkative Breine, who’s planning a wedding with a man she barely knows, and grows intrigued by Josef, a man who seems as damaged as she herself is.

Zofia is an unreliable narrator, a literary technique that can annoy me if it comes to light that the author’s holding material back from the reader to create a more impactful plot. Here, Zofia’s faulty memories make sense given the terrible hand she’s been dealt. There were times, in her search for Abek, when I sensed I was being misled (and was right), while other aspects of the mystery came as a surprise. Aimed at YAs, They Went Left works well as a crossover novel; while young, the characters are adults, and the emotions they face as they determine how to face life again are realistically mature.

Monica Hesse's They Went Left was published by Little Brown Books for Young Readers this week. Thanks to the publisher for sending me a review copy.


  1. I have a copy of this book and can't wait to read it, even more now that I've read what you think. Stay well and safe.

  2. Hi Alex, hope you're well also. I'll look forward to reading your thoughts about They Went Left later on.

  3. Upon reading your review, I am now intrigued in reading this book. Excellent review and very well written.