December 18, 2012

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne

What exactly was the difference? he wondered to himself. And who decided which people wore the striped pajamas and which people wore the uniforms? 
-from The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne

The Holocaust is a subject that I wouldn't recommend writing about unless you've lived through it, and yet John Boyne has done an exceptional job of representing one of the most incomprehensible chapters in humanity's history with The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, a fictional novel. I am always very nervous and cautious reading stories about the Holocaust because each account is different yet equally horrific. Despite the time I have spent studying the Holocaust while earning my degree in Religious Studies, I can never get used to hearing about the experiences and tend to read more juvenile literature which isn't quite as graphic (i.e. The Diary of Anne Frank and my personal favorite Upon the Head of a Goat: A Childhood in Hungary). This novel delivers the gravity of the Holocaust, but through the eyes of a child who has no understanding of the horrors surrounding him, making it a less difficult read emotionally than it should be.

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is told from the third-person perspective of 9-year old Bruno, the son of the commanding officer of Auschwitz, the most deadly of Hitler's death camps. Bruno has no real understanding of World War II and the Holocaust other than his juvenile interpretation of the world around him. After leaving Berlin to relocate to Auschwitz and bored out of his mind, Bruno goes exploring and meets Shmuel, a boy on the other side of the fence. Bruno and Shmuel develop a friendship despite their differences, illustrating that they aren't that different at all.

I really enjoyed the innocence captured in this book and how it gave a new lens with which to view history. In the Author's Note, Boyne says, "I believed that the only respectful way for me to deal with this subject was through the eyes of a child, and particularly through the eyes of a very naive child who couldn't possibly understand the terrible things that were taking place around him." Boyne does an excellent job executing this method and somehow finds a way of showing the humanity of the enemy through Bruno.

Boyne creates Bruno's world through a series of innocent misunderstandings (i.e. 'Heil Hitler,' [Bruno] said, which, he presumed was another way of saying, 'Well, goodbye for now, have a pleasant afternoon.'), clever writing, and dramatic irony (Bruno's perspective of his life versus Shmuel's is: "there's no one to talk to and no one to play with and you get to have dozens of friends and are probably playing for hours every day." As readers we know that Bruno is very wrong.). We also witness Bruno's indoctrination of beliefs through his family ('Germany is the greatest of all countries,' Bruno replied, remembering something that he had overheard Father discussing with Grandfather on any number of occasions. 'We're superior.') which encourages us to question the validity our own beliefs we've had since children and inherited from our families.

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is not perfect, however. Obviously, many readers may not appreciate the simple platform on which such a grave and devastating topic is discussed. Another complaint is the translation issues. Bruno makes it clear that he and his family speak German; however, he mispronounces Auschwitz as "Out-With" and his sister explains, 'Out with the people who lived here before us, I expect,' - which makes no sense if translated into German. (For the record, "out with" in English translated to German is raus mit, I checked to make sure my complaint was reasonable). Similarly, Bruno misunderstands Hitler's title the fuhrer, calling him "The Fury"; to English readers this is funny and ironic, but "fury" translated into German is wut and this misunderstanding loses its punch.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. It was a simple read and not very long, proving you don't need a complicated book to illustrate a powerful message. While I'd like to believe we live in a more tolerant world today, the truth is that we can always be reminded of how much we have in common with even those who are most different from us. Bruno and Shmuel had a physical fence between them, but what fences do we put up every day between ourselves and others?

After all, only the victims and survivors can truly comprehend the
awfulness of that time and place; the rest of us live on the other
side of the fence, staring through from our own comfortable
place, trying in our own clumsy ways to make sense of it all.
-from the Author's Note 

Bottom Line: I recommend that everyone read this book, unless you are especially sensitive to the Holocaust. This would make a great book to read for a book club because of how much there is to discuss. This would also make a great gift this holiday season for a fiction lover who also loves history, especially WWII history.  ★★★★/5


  1. I never read the book, but I did see the movie. I've added the book to my must read list for next year. The movie was incredibly heart wrenching. The young boys poor of view definitely makes it an interesting insight into the holocaust. Thanks for joining us this month. Are you joining us tonight for the video chat? Hope so!

  2. Oh, man! I LOVED the movie, it sounds like I NEED to read the book!!


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