Summary and book reviews of They Went Left by Monica Hesse

They Went Left

by Monica Hesse

They Went Left by Monica Hesse X
They Went Left by Monica Hesse
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2020, 384 pages
    Apr 2021, 384 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Debbie Morrison
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About this Book

Book Summary

A tour de force historical mystery from Monica Hesse, the bestselling and award-winning author of Girl in the Blue Coat.

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.

Lower Silesia, August 1945

LINES. I AM GOOD AT LINES. I AM GOOD AT LINES BECAUSE YOU don't have to think in them, just stand in them, and this line is easy because now only a few people are in front of me, and easy because I understand the reason I am in it, and it's a good reason, and I am good at lines.

At the front of it, an official-looking woman—from the Red Cross, I think—sits behind a table. It's a nice, indoor table, as though it was carried out to the street from someone's dining room. Except, instead of sitting on a rug, it sits on cobblestones, and instead of candlesticks, it's piled with neat stacks of papers and smells of furniture polish, or I imagine it would; it looks like that kind of table. A solitary cup also sits on it, next to the papers at the proper two o'clock of an imaginary place setting like a leftover from the table's former life. A cup of tea for the official worker.

"Next," she says, and we move forward because this is how lines work; they ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. Zofia wrestles with her own memories over the course of her search for Abek. How does the Sosnowiec of Zofia's memories compare to the Sosnowiec she returns to?
  2. How do physical possessions, particularly clothing, anchor Zofia and other characters to the present? To the past?
  3. Zofia speaks of the "small acts of defiance" braved by people in the camps (p. 209). How do characters assert their humanity in the face of the systematic Nazi efforts to dehumanize them?
  4. What role does storytelling play in preserving the legacy of survivors and their families? How do records of survivors' stories, both written and oral, inform Zofia's search for Abek?
  5. Zofia suggests that "the absence of pain is not the same as the presence of happiness" (p. 198)....
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BookBrowse Review


The concept of nothingness emerges as a deep wound and a pervasive trauma that weaves itself through every aspect of the characters' lives. Rather than being overwrought as a theme or device, this series of nothings underscores the morass of desolation that the characters have to navigate. Because of it, readers are drawn deeper into the emotional core of the novel, deeper into the questions raised by the horrors of a post-Holocaust world. True to the weight of its subject matter, They Went Left raises many questions that it does not answer; perhaps because there are no simple or absolute answers. The novel makes no claims to definitive truth about love and grief and survival, and therein lies much of its beauty and imaginative significance for readers...continued

Full Review (803 words).

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(Reviewed by Debbie Morrison).

Media Reviews

New York Times
Hesse writes with tenderness and insight about the stories we tell ourselves in order to survive and the ways we cobble together family with whatever we have. When the plot twists come, they are gut punches — some devastating, others offering hope.

School Library Connection (starred review)
Featuring factual locations and covering a period of time not often focused on, this is an excellent book to add to a Holocaust collection...This book would be valuable for all high schools and should be considered a must-purchase.

Kirkus Reviews
Despite the well-researched setting and some genuinely touching emotional beats, the novel never really gels...Notable for exploring an oft-forgotten moment but ultimately succeeds mostly as a history lesson.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Hesse has written several YA novels that touch on WWII traumas, and this one shows her gift at coming at an oft-told story from a new angle, as well as her compelling language, characterization, and ability to fill a story with realistic details and tension.

Booklist (starred review)
Hesse again proves to be a master of verisimilitude, bringing the realities of existence in the immediate postwar period to visceral life through painstaking detail. Her beautifully realized, highly empathetic characters come to life, too, in the pages of this superbly crafted real life, there is heartbreaking sadness here but also hope that life, finally, will be whole and fine, A to Z.

School Library Journal (starred review)
Highly recommended as a first purchase for both public and school libraries. Sure to please a variety of readers; those interested in historical fiction, romance, and mystery will not be able to put this book down.

Reader Reviews


I understand that many people are mad about the swearing, but this book is for young adults not children. It does also have an inappropriate scene but it’s for people 14 up so please don’t get mad over the swearing, just find another book for your ...   Read More

Stopped reading it
Marketed as a book for young people. Several "F" words and many "sh-it" words. Don't care for that so I stopped reading it. What a shame. Why do they put that it books marketed for kids? I don't get it.

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Beyond the Book

The Red Cross in World War II

Red Cross nurses in uniform, 1941The Red Cross is one of the aid organizations that plays a role in Monica Hesse's novel, They Went Left. Because so much of Europe was decimated after the war — phone service and many railways had been largely disrupted, for example — the Red Cross provided more than just medical care to Holocaust survivors, wounded soldiers and others affected by the war, it also served an important role in reconnecting family members. When we first meet Zofia, the protagonist of the novel, she is standing in a Red Cross line, waiting to give her brother's name so that a record of his "missing" status can be logged and the official search for him can begin.

Zofia displays an implied mistrust of the large bureaucracy's ability to find her ...

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