THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PAJAMAS by John Boyne

Book Quote:

“Mother,” said Bruno, marching toward her, “what’s going on? Why is Maria going through my things?”

“She’s packing them,” said Mother.

“Packing them?’” he asked, running quickly through the events of the previous days to consider whether if he had been particularly naughty or had used words out loud that he wasn’t allowed to use and was being sent away because of it. He couldn’t think of anything though. In fact, over the last few days he had behaved in a perfectly decent manner to everyone and couldn’t remember causing any chaos at all. “Why?” he asked then. “What have I done?”

Book Review:

Reviewed by Jana L. Perskie (MAY 19, 2009)

John Boyne’s novel, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is outstanding. It is beautifully written with a most powerful storyline.В Nine year-old Bruno is an innocent, carefree boy growing up in Berlin during WWII. He has three “Best Friends For Life,” and wants to be an explorer when he grows up. Bruno lives in a beautiful mansion, complete with gardens and servants, along with his older sister Gretel, their lovely mother, and their father, a high ranking SS officer. The boy comes home one day after school, in 1943, and finds Maria, the family maid, packing his belongings into wooden crates, including things he had hidden and were “nobody’s business.” He learns that his family is moving away from Berlin and he must go with them, leaving behind his school, best friends and beloved grandparents.
Following a formal dinner that the “Fury” attends, Bruno’s parents explain the reason for the move. His father has received a huge promotion to “Commandant.” They are going to live in a place called “Out-With,” (Auschwitz), in Poland and will remain there for the “foreseeable future.”

The house is a cold and somber place, located in a desolate countryside. Bruno hates his new home and misses his friends. He feels terribly isolated and bored. There are no boys to make friends with here and he wants to return to Berlin. From one side window in the house, he can see a high-wired compound inhabited by sad-looking people in striped pajamas. He wonders what these people do all day and why, in fact, they wear pajamas in the daytime. He wants to go and play with the boys he sees there. When he asks his father who “those people” are, his Commandant Dad responds that “they aren’t really people.” Lieutenant Kotler, a supercilious young SS officer on his father’s staff, constantly ruffles Bruno’s hair and calls him “little man.” Bruno’s anger at Kotler’s condescension is just a part of the rage and helplessness he feels about his living situation, where he feels like a prisoner.
Since there is not much to explore within his own compound, where the family lives, it is inevitable that Bruno would seek excitement elsewhere. Thus, he finds a way to escape his confined quarters and eventually makes his way to the barbed wire enclosure where now he can clearly see the inhabitants within – all wearing gray striped pajamas with gray striped caps on their shaved heads. On one of his excursions, he meets a boy named Shmuel, a broken waif of a child wearing a numbered uniform. Shmuel lives a very different life than Bruno. He is a Jew, and along with his father, a prisoner in the camp. He sometimes hides by the fence, during work detail, where he meets Bruno and the two form a friendship. They even share the same birthday. Shmuel tells Bruno about how his family was transported here from a ghetto in Poland. Bruno talks about his wonderful life in Berlin, and smuggles food from the kitchen to give to Shmuel. But Bruno still doesn’t “get it.” The enormity of the evil confronting him is beyond his comprehension. He believes that the numbered striped pajamas are part of a game played inside the barbed wire enclosure. He asks his friend what is burned in the chimneys. I won’t go any farther with my summary as I don’t want to include “spoilers.”

The narrative is in the 3rd person, but the story is told from a child’s perspective. The boys’ friendship is an allegory of sorts, the author calls it a “fable.” Children are able, if given the chance, to overcome differences in culture and identity. Their innate innocence allows them to believe that people ultimately can get along if they’re not encouraged to hate. Conflict and distrust are cultivated by governments and the media.

Of course, this is not a “real” story of Auschwitz, where prisoners would be shot or killed by the electric barbed wires if they spent time hanging out there. And, of course, Shmuel, would not have survived the camp long enough to befriend anyone. Most children, who were of no use in the labor force, would have been sent to their death immediately upon arrival at the camp. And, it is beyond me how an intelligent, albeit naive and self-centered child like Bruno, would be calling the Fuehrer, the “Fury” or be unaware of the war. But as I mentioned above, I do think this novel is allegorical in nature, in which case, I allow for author’s licence.

This book is labeled “young adult” and I believe this to be very misleading. First, many adults who do not read young adult literature, might be put off by the category. More important, although this story is allegorical in nature, it is certainly powerful and frequently disturbing, as any book about the Holocaust would be. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas themes are the nature of evil, the nature of man, and the beauty of the human spirit. The author is explicit in his writing, although there is no overt violence or questionable language. However, there were moments when I had to stop reading because I felt actual pain. And the more I got to know the characters of the two boys, Bruno and Shmuel, the more emotional I became. The book is meant to educate young adults about the Holocaust. I believe that the manner in which the content is depicted, although done with great sensitivity and compassion, is too harsh for a young person – a “tween “- to read. I think it more appropriate for someone in high school or college. I am Jewish, and a mother, and I feel that it is so important to educate all people, especially our youth, about this most heinous event. But I prefer to do so by introducing books, like The Diary of Anne Frank, before exposing children to a disturbing drama like this one. If you disagree with me, I would suggest that you discuss this book with your child before and after reading. It would make for a good discussion on WWII, the Holocaust and morality and evil.

The novel brings to mind 2 quotations, which I will share with you.

“Childhood is measured out by sounds and smells and sights, before the dark hour of reason grows.” John Betjeman

When childhood dies, its corpses are called adults and they enter society, one of the politer names of Hell. That is why we dread children, even if we love them. They show us the state of our decay.” Brian Aldin

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-5from 597 readers
PUBLISHER: David Fickling Books Movie Tie-In (October 28, 2008)
REVIEWER: Jana L Perskie
AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK? YES! Start Reading Now!
AUTHOR WEBSITE: John Boyne
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and or Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Our review of Crippen and try:

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May 19, 2009 В· Judi Clark В· No Comments
Tags: , , , ,  В· Posted in: Allegory/Fable, Germany, World Lit

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