Book Review: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne

Title: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
Author: John Boyne
Publisher: David Fickling Books
Publication date: 2006
Length: 215 pages
Genre: Middle grade fiction
Source: Purchased

⭐⭐⭐

Berlin, 1942: When Bruno returns home from school one day, he discovers that his belongings are being packed in crates. His father has received a promotion and the family must move to a new house far, far away, where there is no one to play with and nothing to do. A tall fence stretches as far as the eye can see and cuts him off from the strange people in the distance.

But Bruno longs to be an explorer and decides that there must be more to this desolate new place than meets the eye. While exploring his new environment, he meets another boy whose life and circumstances are very different from his own, and their meeting results in a friendship that has devastating consequences.

Oh, I have such mixed feelings about this book!

Published in 2006, the book originally came with all sorts of disclaimers urging people not to give away the story, but to allow all readers to experience this book without knowing what it was about. All these years later, the subject matter is no longer a secret: This is Holocaust fiction, telling the story of two young boys who meet through the fence at Auschwitz, and despite their vastly different circumstances, form a deep friendship.

We see the story unfold through 9-year-old Bruno’s eyes. Bruno’s father is a rising Nazi officer, favored by Hitler himself (whose name Bruno hears as “the Fury” rather than “the Fuhrer”). The father is promoted to Kommandant of Auschwitz, and when we first meet Bruno, he’s expressing his unhappiness at having his happy life in Berlin uprooted, as the family will be moving because of his father’s new job.

Bruno is remarkabley clueless (more on that later). They arrive at their new home, which is nowhere near as grand as his house in Berlin. There’s nothing to do, and no one to play with. From the upstairs window, Bruno has a view of strange people on the other side of a barbed wire fence, all wearing striped pajamas. He wonders who these people are and what they’re doing, and even feels some envy at what appears to be a large group of people who are all together while he is so very alone.

As Bruno goes exploring along the forbidden fence, he finds a strange boy sitting near it on the other side, a skinny, gray-faced boy wearing the striped pajamas. They start to talk, and Bruno and Shmuel begin to get to know one another. Soon, Bruno considers Shmuel his best friend, although he’s frustrated that they can never play together, and somehow knows enough never to mention Shmuel in his house.

On its surface, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is a moving story. And yet, I can understand why it was controversial upon its release.

For starters, there are some story issues that make the book hard to digest. Bruno is 9 years old and lived in the heart of Berlin, in a house led by a Nazi officer and where soldiers and other important people constantly come and go… and yet he appears to never have heard of Jews until his sister tells him, much later, that that’s who those people on the other side of the fence are.

And why are there so many children at Auschwitz, when we know that the majority would have been murdered upon arrival? How is Shmuel able to sneak away for hours, day after day, with no one noticing?

And is Bruno’s language mix-ups (such as “the Fury” and his belief that they live at “Out-With”) supposed to be cute? Frankly, he presents as much younger than nine.

In the book’s favor, the title page clearly calls this story “a fable”. No, these are not historical events. No, this depiction of life at Auschwitz isn’t meant to be historically accurate.

And yet, what’s concerning is that apparently this book is often used in schools as an introduction to Holocaust fiction. In fact, the back of my paperback edition includes a blurb from USA Today that calls this book “as memorable an introduction to the subject as The Diary of Anne Frank”.

Um, no. That comparison is absurd. And it disturbs me to think that there are students whose first encounter with the horrors of Auschwitz might be through this “fable”, where nothing seems all that terrible at first, where the nightmarish reality is presented as a distant curiosity, and where a reader who doesn’t know the factual history might not even get what was going on.

As a companion book, or a different lens on known events, sure, this would be effective. But as the sole introduction, it’s sorely lacking in context and facts, and I’m afraid that the melodrama and Bruno’s limited worldview are pretty close to sugar-coating.

Now, I’ll add that I haven’t seen the movie, so I can’t comment on whether that version is more or less effective at conveying the full picture of Auschwitz. I actually picked up this book this week because my son saw the movie at school and came home to tell me how good it was. I think I should give it a chance, and see if I feel any differently about the story afterward.

I was eager to read this book not only because of my son’s recommendation, but because I just recently read my very first book by John Boyne, The Heart’s Invisible Furies, and thought it was brilliant.

As I was reading The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, I just couldn’t stop and ended up reading it straight through. It was only once I’d closed the covers and stopped to think that the various elements above started to bother me.

I’d be really curious to hear from others who’ve read this book and see if our responses and reactions are at all aligned.

Meanwhile, I’ve been looking up reviews from when the book was published, and have found more than a few pieces that discuss why this book had such a mixed and controversial response:

(Note: Some of these links may contain spoilers. Proceed with caution!)

Review – New York Times
Review – Jewish Book Council
Analysis – Holocaust Exhibition & Learning Centre
Movie review – Time Magazine
Book Review – Aish.com

Book Review: The World That We Knew by Alice Hoffman

 

In 1941, during humanity’s darkest hour, three unforgettable young women must act with courage and love to survive, from the New York Times bestselling author of The Dovekeepers and The Marriage of Opposites Alice Hoffman. 

In Berlin, at the time when the world changed, Hanni Kohn knows she must send her twelve-year-old daughter away to save her from the Nazi regime. She finds her way to a renowned rabbi, but it’s his daughter, Ettie, who offers hope of salvation when she creates a mystical Jewish creature, a rare and unusual golem, who is sworn to protect Lea. Once Ava is brought to life, she and Lea and Ettie become eternally entwined, their paths fated to cross, their fortunes linked.

Lea and Ava travel from Paris, where Lea meets her soulmate, to a convent in western France known for its silver roses; from a school in a mountaintop village where three thousand Jews were saved. Meanwhile, Ettie is in hiding, waiting to become the fighter she’s destined to be.

What does it mean to lose your mother? How much can one person sacrifice for love? In a world where evil can be found at every turn, we meet remarkable characters that take us on a stunning journey of loss and resistance, the fantastical and the mortal, in a place where all roads lead past the Angel of Death and love is never ending.

In The World That We Knew, author Alice Hoffman brings her unique infusion of magic and nature to a store of survival during the worst of times. Starting in Berlin in 1941, the story introduces us to Hanni and her young daughter Lea. Hanni knows it’s only a matter of time until they’re captured and sent to a death camp like the rest of the Jews around them. Desperate to save Lea, Hanni begs for a miracle from the rabbi known to have mystical abilities, but instead, his daughter Ettie offers help in exchange for an escape opportunity for her and her younger sister.

Etti, having listened outside her father’s door for years, has herself grown wise in the art of Jewish mysticism, and uses her knowledge to create a golem — a powerful creature made from clay shaped into human form and brought to life through secret rituals, whose entire purpose is to protect Lea. Hanni can’t escape with her elderly, disabled mother, nor can she leave her behind, so she sends Lea away in care of Ava the golem, to seek what safety might be available to them in France.

France isn’t exactly safe for Jews either. Finding refuge with the Levi family, and joined by Etti, Lea and Ava are still at risk, and finally make their escape before their new shelter is raided by Nazis — but first, Lea forms a connection with the young son of the Levi family, Julien. Lea and Julien make only one demand of one another: stay alive.

From here, the story spirals out in multiple directions. We follow Lea and Ava from one temporary haven to another, including a remote convent where the nuns shelter the children who come to them, at risk of their own lives. We follow Etti into the forests as she seeks and then finds the resistance, desiring only vengeance. We follow Julien on his own path toward escape, refuge, and meaning. For each, and for the other characters we meet, there are dangers around every corner — and yet, there is also the opportunity to help others, to find meaning even in the middle of horror and tragedy.

Once upon a time something happened that you never could have imagined, a spell was broken a girl was saved, a rose grew out of a tooth buried deep in the ground, love was everywhere, and people who had been taken away continued to walk with you, in dreams and in the waking world.

The writing in The World That We Knew is just gorgeous. The author evokes the glory of the natural world, even as the people in it carry out horrific deeds and leave destruction in their wake. There’s magic all around, both in the form of Ava, the golem who starts as a mere bodyguard but finds her own personhood as time goes on, and in the flowers, bees, and birds that surround our characters and interact with them in unexpected ways.

Every now and then a crow would soar past with a gold ring or coat button in its beak, a shiny souvenir of murder.

The characters are lovely and memorable. I especially loved Ava, but it’s also wonderful and awful to see Lea grow up during war, having lost eveyrthing, but still clinging to her mother’s love and her connection to Julien. But really, I can’t just single these two out. There are side characters who come into the story briefly, whose stories we come to know before they exit once more, and their stories have power as well. In some ways, it feels as though the author has painted a picture through her writing of all the lost potential represented by the millions murdered during this terrible time.

And yet, the book is not without hope. Despite the tragedies, there’s still goodness, the possibility of a future, and the possibility of meaning:

What had been created was alive. Ettie did not see clay before her, but rather a woman who had been made by women, brought to life by their blood and needs and desires.

I don’t think I can really do justice to how special and beautiful this book is. The writing is superb, and the story leaves an indelible impression. Highly recommended.

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The details:

Title: The World That We Knew
Author: Alice Hoffman
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: September 24, 2019
Length: 384 pages
Genre: HIstorical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Take A Peek Book Review: The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted by Robert Hillman

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

 

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Tom Hope doesn’t think he’s much of a farmer, but he’s doing his best. He can’t have been much of a husband to Trudy, either, judging by her sudden departure. It’s only when she returns, pregnant to someone else, that he discovers his surprising talent as a father. So when Trudy finds Jesus and takes little Peter away with her to join the holy rollers, Tom’s heart breaks all over again.

Enter Hannah Babel, quixotic smalltown bookseller: the second Jew—and the most vivid person—Tom has ever met. He dares to believe they could make each other happy.

But it is 1968: twenty-four years since Hannah and her own little boy arrived at Auschwitz. Tom Hope is taking on a batttle with heartbreak he can barely even begin to imagine.

My Thoughts:

First of all, let’s be clear, while the title refers to a bookshop, this novel isn’t particularly about the bookshop. There’s a whole subgenre of bookstore fiction, sure to warm the hearts of booklovers everywhere. This isn’t one of those books.

Set in Australia, The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted tells the story of Tom, a lonely man who’s been unlucky in love. Tom is a sheep farmer who lives a contented, quiet life, until his wife Trudy deserts him and takes away Peter, the son of his heart if not his body. When Tom meets Hannah, it’s like he gets a new ray of sunshine in his life, and the two form a passionate, unbreakable bond. But Hannah’s past haunts her in ways Tom can’t quite understand, and when Peter reenters their lives, it may be more than Hannah can stand.

The story is truly affecting in parts, and I came to love Tom quite a lot. He’s sweet and good and loving, although he does seem to allow himself to roll with the punches rather than standing up to the people and events that hurt him. Tom’s relationship with Peter is lovely, so when he’s taken away, it is a heart-breaking development. The story of Peter’s experiences at “Jesus Camp” is horrible — he’s essentially trapped there by a mother who’s caught up in pastor’s cult-like community, and I was really upset by Peter’s suffering and the length of time it takes for him to finally be rescued.

We hear about Hannah’s past through chapters scattered throughout the book that show her experiences in the concentration camp and the years afterward. Of course, she’s deserving of great sympathy, but there are times with Tom and Peter that’s it hard to like her.

Overall, this is a quiet and moving book. I loved the descriptions of Tom’s farm and the Australian setting and landscapes. The writing is slow and underspoken, with a brevity that somehow makes the emotion harder to access at times.  The juxtaposition of ranch life in Australia and memories of the Holocaust makes for an unusual mix, but it works. The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted is an unusual work of historical fiction, definitely worth checking out.

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The details:

Title: The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted
Author: Robert Hillman
Publisher: G. P. Putnam’s Sons
Publication date: April 9, 2019
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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