Title: They Went Left
Author: Monica Hesse
Publisher: Little Brown Books for Young Readers
Genre(s): YA Historical Fiction
Subject(s): WW2, Holocaust, Mental Health, Siblings
Release Date: April 7th, 2020
Page Count: 384 (hardback)
I admit, I’m not exactly in the right mood for Holocaust fiction at this point in 2020, but I went into this book for a specific reason: I wanted something hopeful. Something about finding light at the end of a tunnel and holding onto it, despite how much easier it might be to turn and walk right back in. Nothing blindingly happy. Just reaffirming.
And that’s what I got. A story set right after the end of WW2, during its first few months of tentative chaos, with people trying to pick up the pieces of their lives. It’s not a healing story, exactly, but it is a story about healing and the complications that come with such a journey. Zofia’s mental state–her looping thoughts and fears, her gaps in memory, her disassociation– are presented with such great care and lyricism. There just aren’t a lot of WW2 stories out there that focus on camp survivors who were just recently liberated, and I really appreciate Hesse for shining a light on the topic. Because while there’s strength in surviving, I think there’s even greater strength in living. In moving forward with your life, carrying all the horrors you’ve experienced, and choosing to embrace love and laughter in spite of the pain. It’s a kind of courage that deserves to be highlighted more in narratives.
“Today I am choosing to love the person in front of me. Do you understand? Because he’s here, I’m here, and we’re ready to not be lonely together.”
I was also anticipating a good mystery, though (I mean, the blurbs and synopsis lean heavily on it) but that I didn’t get at all. What little mystery there is predictable and rushed and its conclusion left me feeling underwhelmed. And “rushed” is more or less my biggest complaint about the whole thing. The story throws a handful of plot threads at you–a slice-of-life angle focusing on the refugees in the displaced person camp; a romantic subplot between Zofia and Josef; a search for Zofia’s brother–and while their skeletal structure is interesting, the execution needs a lot more fleshing out. More development of the characters at the camp, better exploration of the romance.
Right now it feels more like an abridged book, and while I really liked the prose and the themes presented, I can only dream longingly for the unabridged version that never existed.
Germany, 1945. The soldiers who liberated the Gross-Rosen concentration camp said the war was over, but nothing feels over to eighteen-year-old Zofia Lederman. Her body has barely begun to heal; her mind feels broken. And her life is completely shattered: Three years ago, she and her younger brother, Abek, were the only members of their family to be sent to the right, away from the gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Everyone else–her parents, her grandmother, radiant Aunt Maja–they went left.
Zofia’s last words to her brother were a promise: Abek to Zofia, A to Z. When I find you again, we will fill our alphabet. Now her journey to fulfill that vow takes her through Poland and Germany, and into a displaced persons camp where everyone she meets is trying to piece together a future from a painful past: Miriam, desperately searching for the twin she was separated from after they survived medical experimentation. Breine, a former heiress, who now longs only for a simple wedding with her new fiancé. And Josef, who guards his past behind a wall of secrets, and is beautiful and strange and magnetic all at once.
But the deeper Zofia digs, the more impossible her search seems. How can she find one boy in a sea of the missing? In the rubble of a broken continent, Zofia must delve into a mystery whose answers could break her–or help her rebuild her world.
About the Author
Monica Hesse is the New York Times bestselling author of Girl in the Blue Coat, American Fire, and The War Outside, as well as a columnist at The Washington Post writing about gender and its impact on society. She lives outside Washington, D.C. with her husband and their dog.
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Review copy provided by the publisher for an honest review