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