The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
By: John Boyne
"If you do start to read this book, you will go on a journey with a 9 year old boy called Bruno. (Though this isn't a book for nine-year-olds.) And sooner or later you will arrive with Bruno at a fence. Fences like this exist all over the world. We hope you never have to encounter such a fence."
This is the only description on the book cover so I was immediately intrigued to read the book when I stumbled upon it while searching for a historical fiction novel on the Holocaust at the library. The jacket cover says: "the story of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is very difficulty to describe. Usually we give some clues about the book on the jacket, but in this case we think that would spoil the reading of the book. We think it is important that you start to read without knowing what it is about."
I couldn't help but thinking I shouldn't summarize the book but then how would I discuss it. Bruno is the main character and the story is told from his perspective. Bruno is a young German boy, whose father is a commander in the military. He starts off like any normal little boy. He goes to school, has three best friends, and enjoys sliding down his great banister in his house. He comes home one day and finds his house being packed up so that his family can move because of his father's job. I immediately stopped and thought about my own daughter and her having to move due to her father being in the military. I know that it is no where near the same situation because it is not war time and my husband is not doing horrible things but I imagine she would be just as hurt to leave her house, friends, school, and simple things children get attached to such as a stair banister. Reading about his reaction to him having to move made the book feel very real to me.
Suddenly Bruno's family has to move because the "Fury" (führer or Hilter I had to look this up because I was not sure what it meant at first) came to his house and has a new position for him. Bruno does not understand any thing about this except that "his father was a man to watch and that the Fury had big things in mind for him. Oh and that he had a fantastic uniform too." His mother tells him that "It's a very important job..... a job that needs a very special man to do it." Bruno protests a lot but it does not change anything and he finds himself on a train and arriving at a house that is much less extravagant than his house in Berlin with the name of "Out-with" (Auschwitz) There are no other friends around or houses, just woods and a large fence. On the other side of the fence are a bunch of people with the same pajamas and that all live together in huts. It amazes me that he does not ask his mother or father more about the people on the other side of the fence but almost seems to ignore the fact that they are there for some time. I don't think that would be the case for many 9 year old boys I know. They would surely have many questions about it.
The first half of the story goes through Bruno missing home and hating his new home. There is very little excitement and I was actually a little bored. Bruno seems to not understand anything that is going on around him and definitely does not seem to understand or know about the war or even who the Jews were. He is oblivious to what is going on around him and I have to wonder if that was the case for young children during the time.
One day because "he no longer had any friends to play with and it wasn't as if Gretel (his sister) would ever play with him" he decided to go out and do "the one thing that he was able to do on his own and that he had done all the time back in Berlin, and that was exploring." He grabbed his coat and boots and went out walking and as he was walking he wondered far away from his house and along the great fence. He thought to himself that it was "funny that I've never wondered about those people" and why "that none of them had ever been invited back to the house." He went out exploring even though his mother and father had not allowed him "anywhere near the fence or the camp, and most particularly that exploration was banned at Out-With."
He goes anyway.
He walked and walked and was almost about to turn around without finding much when he saw a "dot in the distance." He walked closer to it and found that it was a boy. The boy was on the other side of the fence and he immediately starts to talk to him. The boy's name was Shmuel and they learn that they are exactly the same age with the same birthday and that they were both brought from their homes to "Out-With" by very different ways. They become fast friends and Bruno decides to come and talk to him the next day. They meet and talk together for the next year. Through their discussion we learn little about how the Jews were treated in the camp. Bruno still does not seem to understand much of it though and the severity of the situation. Bruno sneaks Shmuel food out when he visits and no one notices that Bruno explores to talk to Shmuel everyday or that Shmuel is sitting far off by the fence. I found this a little unbelievable. Shmuel gets away from his hut and just sits by the fence and from what I have read about Auschwitz I do not know if that would happen.
The two even stay friends when Shmuel is brought to the house by a very harsh young solider named Lieutenant Kotler. Shmuel is brought to clean glasses for a big party. Bruno sneaks him some food but Kotler notices and blames Shmuel for stealing the food. Bruno does not stick up for Shmuel because he is scared of Kotler. Shmuel obviously gets beaten for this as he shows up several days later at the fence with many bruises. Bruno apologizes and Shmuel forgives him.
The boys continue to be friends and talk until one day after Bruno's mother gets into an argument with her father telling him how unhappy she is there. She convinces him they need to go back to Berlin. When Bruno hears this he realizes he likes his friendship so much that he does not want to go. He makes a trip to Shmuel to tell him the news and Shmuel is sad. Sad because his father has gone missing. They decide together to make one last adventure. before he goes. This adventure happens on the last 15 pages of the book and was a shock to me. I did not see it coming. I will leave it at that as to not tell the ending......
I found this book different than others I had read that featured the Holocausts. Many are from the experience of the Jewish people in the camps. This one did have some of that from Shmuel's accounts but was more about Bruno and how his life was affected. This story was one that was simple. It was simply written, which I think makes it seem more real of the way a 9 year old would say it. It is not a history book in that it does not contain a lot of facts and things about the time period. It also is rather slow moving at the beginning but the turning point is when Bruno meets Shmuel. You are sitting on the edge of your seat and turning the pages faster because you wonder what is going to happen. This unlikely friendship would not be tolerated if anyone found out and I was just waiting for the moment when someone discovered it but instead it ended in a totally different way than I was picturing.
I kept coming back to this thought as I read the book that children are not born with hate for others but instead it is learned through their experiences and family influence. I think that is the moral of this story. That underlying theme kept coming up as Bruno would find bits and pieces about the Jewish people. He was very naive to their differences and even when he found them he did not understand why that was bad. When Shmuel was in his house they look at their hands together and notice that other than the fact that Bruno's were much fatter they were the same. Bruno also has to shave his head at one point because of a bout of lice and him and Shmuel also comment that they look the same again except for Bruno being bigger. It makes me sad that the world corrupts these naive and loving children with their thinking and hatred for others. It also made me think of the times in my own classroom that the children were kind to each other or did not seem to notice any differences of their own and instead of children learning from adults, I thought we should take a step back and watch and learn from them when it comes to humanity and loving each other.
The two page author's note in the back is a great addition adding that he thought "the only respectufl way for me to deal with this subject was through the eyes of a child, and particularly through the eyes of a rather native child who couldn't possibly understand the terrible things that were taking place around him. After all only the victims and survivors can truely comprehend the awfulness of that time and place; the rest of us live on the otehr side of the fence, starting through from our own comfortable place, tryin in our own clumsy way to make sense of it all." I thought this was an insightful way to look at writing a book on the Holocaust.
Check out Boyne's website for more information on him and his books.
This book was also turned into a movie. I have never seen it but would be interested to watch it to see how it compares to what Boyne wrote. Watch the movie trailer here and read more about the movie version.