The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne
I’m a bona-fide book nerd. When I have the time I can polish off a couple hundred page novel in a week. I’ve read hundreds of books over the course of my life, so when I say a book is one of my “favorites” that means it’s a favorite over hundreds! Pretty good title to have! The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is now added to that list.
Told through the eyes of 9-year-old Bruno, it’s the story of war-torn Nazi run Germany. Bruno’s father, Herr Commandant, has been assigned by, “The Fury” (Bruno’s mispronunciation throughout the whole novel) himself to run a concentration camp called Out-With (Auschwitz, again Bruno’s mistake in the understanding of the name). The family uproots from their home in Berlin, where “the streets are packed with vendors” and also where Bruno’s best friends live, to a new house that Bruno describes as, “an empty, desolate place where no one ever laughed because there was nothing to laugh at and nothing to laugh about.”
At Out-With readers are bounced between flashbacks and present day chapters. We learn more in-depth background information on Herr Commandant. How his children know him only as their father; a man whose loving, kind, providing, and strong. His soldiers view him as someone to be respected & revered, but “prisoners” hate him and him them. Bruno’s mother, although compassionate and in disagreement with her husband’s military responsibilities, is the dutiful supportive wife who tries to shelter her children from their father’s job requirements. We meet Bruno’s older sister, Gretel, whose 12 and (as Bruno refers to her) a “hopeless case”. We’re introduced to a multitude of other characters that help to shape Bruno’s innocence: Maria-the maid who is grateful to Herr Commandant for her job, but secretly disagrees with his political beliefs. Grandfather and Grandmother-while Grandfather is a proud father of his son, the Commandant, Grandmother refuses to acknowledge her son and views him as a disappointment, telling him whenever she gets the chance. Lieutenant Kotler-Herr Commandant’s right-hand man, Gretel’s crush, and Bruno’s enemy; someone he has high disdain for and is intimidated and fearful of. The novel also hints at a romantic relationship between Bruno’s mother and Lt. Kotler. The “Fury”-who’s “real” name is never mentioned, but the implication is obvious. He makes one dinner appearance, but plays a huge role in the background of the whole novel. And of course, Shmuel, the boy in the striped pajamas that Bruno befriends.
Bruno, who wants to be an explorer when he grows up, notices a high wire fence beyond the woods behind his house. From his bedroom window he can see thousands of people, all wearing striped pajamas, living on the other side of the fence. Even though he knows not to leave the yard, curiosity overtakes him and he travels to the fence. There he meets Shmuel and develops a secretive friendship with the boy who shares his birthday. They talk about their lives before Out-With and how each came to reside there. They learn about each other’s families and noticing how frail and small his friend is, Bruno brings Shmuel food, from his kitchen, everyday. When Shmuel is upset one day over the disappearance of his Papa, Bruno sensing an “adventure”, devises a plan to sneak under the fence into Shmuel’s world, to help search for Shmuel’s missing Papa. He quickly realizes Out-With is not the place he thought of as, “a place where all the huts are full of happy families, some of whom sit outside on rocking chairs in the evening and tell stories about how things were so much better when they were children.”
The book is laced with childhood innocence and naivety. From Bruno’s blindness to the horrors he has a second-hand account in, to the pain that Shmuel has witnessed first hand, but as a child cannot begin to comprehend. As, I’m sure, neither can most adults. The writer does a good job of keeping politics out of the story, even when it’s hinted at, it’s still told through the eyes of a confused child. A child that is more interested in building a tire swing than he is about learning of the “Superior Country” that his tutor insists he learn about.
While this is a book about children and written from the point of view of children, I don’t think its a book for children. Young adults, yes, but not little kids. The subject matter is heavy, it’s an emotional novel that will stay on your mind long after you’ve read the last line (and its a good line).
Even though the novel is fiction, the subject matter is a huge part of world history. Reading this novel will open your eyes to the blessing of a life, a horror, that will never be a part of your own personal history.
Watch the movie after you’ve read the book. It follows the novel almost exactly and will leave your heart just as broken.