The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (audio)

Nine-year-old Bruno loves living in his five-story house in Berlin, playing with his three best friends for life, and exploring;  and he is devastated when his father’s promotion to commandant means that the family must move to “Out-With, ” where the house has only three stories and there are no friends to play with. The only thing he has left to do is to explore, and so he goes against his parents wishes and starts exploring. Before long, he meets Schmeul, another 9-year-old boy. Schmeul lives on the other side of a fence that surrounds a large camp filled with people who wear striped pajamas with matching caps all day. Bruno and Schmeul become close friends, meeting every day at the same spot in the fence.

As an adult with the benefit of historical hindsight, you can probably figure out what’s going on here. This novel, which author John Boyne has called a fable, tells a story of the Holocaust through the eyes of a child who lives outside the fence and whose only window into the truth is another child. It’s an interesting exercise that was, for me, at times perplexing and at times moving. Now that I’ve finished the audiobook, I can’t quite make up my mind about it.

I loved the idea of looking at the Holocaust through the eyes of a German child. Bruno is a complete innocent. He doesn’t know what’s going on, and on the few occasions that he gets any whisper of actual information, he has no way of processing it. Who really could, unless they are forced to? And Bruno’s parents carefully shield him from the truth. I also liked that Bruno is sometimes totally self-absorbed. He felt like a real kid in that way. He cares about his friend, but he mostly worries about how things affect him. He brings food to Schmeul every day, which shows his concern, but he sometimes eats the cake along the way, and he never really stops to consider why his friend is always so very hungry.

But there were times I couldn’t quite believe Bruno’s naiveté. This is apparently not an uncommon complaint about this book, and Boyne gives a spirited defence of his characterization in the interview that follows the audiobook. He points out that we have the benefit of hindsight, but that when the camps were first liberated, people were shocked at what had been happening. During the war, many Germans had actually seen concentration camp prisoners marched through their towns, but they refused to recognize what they were seeing. I can believe this, and I can believe Bruno’s ignorance as well, up to a point.

Bruno, unlike the German villagers Boyne mentions, is the 9-year-old son of a Nazi commandant; however, he knows nothing about Jews, he calls Hitler the “Fury,” and he doesn’t actually know what Hitler does—just that’s he’s powerful. About all he knows is how to give the Nazi salute. There are a few vague hints at why his parents might not have fully educated him in the ways of the Reich, but they are nothing more than vague hints. For the son of a Nazi commandant to be so ignorant seems unlikely, and as a result, the story itself feels artificial.

The artifice problem also comes up in Boyne’s choice not to ever name Auschwitz itself. Bruno mispronounces it as “Out-With,” and even when other characters correct him, Boyne never gives the actual name. In the interview, Boyne says that this was because he wanted to universalize the theme, but it feels tricksy to me, and it took me out of the story every time. Evil is universal enough; naming the camp wouldn’t make the horror of it less relevant, especially when you’ve already sort of named it anyway. Perhaps if he had made all of the details more vague, it could have worked, but Boyne is trying to have it both ways. I suppose some artifice is acceptable in a fable, but ideally, the artifice shouldn’t draw attention to itself.

Despite these criticisms, I did find the story moving, and the ending was a punch in the gut. That’s the part I’m really of two minds about. Holocaust stories are tragic stories, but there are a few aspects of the tragedy here that felt like they were there for shock value and not because they are necessary to the story. The ending was deeply affecting, but also rather manipulative. The book will stick with me because of the ending, but I’m not sure it will stick with me in the best way.

This book is short and marketed as a children’s book, but I think it works for adults. It’s far from the best book I’ve ever read about the Holocaust, but it’s an unusual take, and I appreciated it for that. Boyne says that some parents have used it to introduce the topic of the Holocaust to their kids. I’m not a parent, so I don’t feel qualified to speak to the wisdom of that. My inclination would be to start with something more straightforward—something that doesn’t dance so much around the situation. I do believe that any kid who reads this book, particularly one who isn’t familiar with the Holocaust, should read and discuss it with an adult. It will raise questions.

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15 Responses to The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (audio)

  1. litlove says:

    My son was given this (in book form) for Christmas last year, but neither he nor I have read it (guess what – a small success, he is finally reading Watchmen – yay!). I’m struggling to teach Holocaust texts at the moment, because they are so harrowing. But it is true that when the camps were liberated people were completely unprepared, and the major theme of most Holocaust literature is trying to get the reality of the experience heard. Very interesting review, Ms Shelf Love, as ever, and this is a book I’ve hesitated over and been unsure about reading for lots of reasons.

  2. I loved this book. There were a few sections where you had to suspend your belief as I agree that he was too naive and many of the things weren’t realistic, but overall I think this is a great way of teaching older children about the holocaust and I will remember it for a long time.

  3. novelinsights says:

    Hmm, this has made me want to put it on my TBR (especially the ‘short’ bit) as it’s been on my radar for a while. The Book Thief employs a similar device I think, but they sound quite different in style…

  4. Very insightful review, Teresa, especially the parts about artifice and manipulation. You have intrigued me; the book has been on my radar for some time but I was so disappointed by The Book Thief that I avoided it (similar in theme and target audience but no other similarity perhaps).

    I am reviewing a piece of Holocaust literature today and your points raised some questions for me that I may have to address.

  5. diane says:

    I enjoyed the audio version of this book as well as the movie. Shocking but good.

  6. Kathleen says:

    This was made into a movie in the last year or so and I think it got really good reviews. I want to read it but have to be in the right frame of mind to read about books that deal with the holocaust. Thanks for a thorough and insightful review.

  7. savidgereads says:

    This book is utterly utterly wonderful (in a dark way) and I think its one that everyone should read. I don’t think a book this short has ever moved me this much. My mum has recently read it to my little sister (aged eleven) and the ending was met with utter silence and shock from my sister. She couldnt believe it.

  8. Cara Powers says:

    Great insightful review! This is one of those books I read before I began reviewing and trying to train myself to read with a more critical eye. I enjoyed it but didn’t love it. Everything you’ve written is true.

  9. Jenny says:

    Interesting review. I’ve avoided this because I was afraid it would feel like a betrayal — a softening of something that in reality was unspeakably grim and horrifying. Yes, it’s true that people living near the camps didn’t know all about what was going on in there, but they knew — had to know — more than they said they did. The capacity for human self-deception is almost infinite, but still. This would trouble me.

    Another good book for kids about the Holocaust is Number the Stars, by Lois Lowry. I also like Jane Yolen’s The Devil’s Arithmetic.

  10. Jenny says:

    I’ve heard mixed things about this book – a lot of rave reviews and a few complaints that it’s overrated and (as you say) artificial. At some point I’m going to try reading the book & watching the film more or less the same day, as a comparison study. :)

  11. Teresa says:

    Litlove: If you do read it, I’d be very curious to hear what you think. It is short enough to read at one sitting. Oh, and if your son is reading Watchmen and you want more graphic novels for him, I can’t recommend the Fables series highly enough.

    Jackie: Boyne talked extensively about willing suspension of disbelief in the interview, and it’s true that if you’re not willing to suspend your disbelief you’re either not going to enjoy this book or you’ll come away with a completely wrong impression of the Holocaust. It’s not really the unreality in Bruno’s naivete that has continued to trouble me. It’s the sense that the ending had to ramped up to the level that it was in order to make the reader feel sympathy.

    novelinsights: I listened to The Book Thief shortly before I started blogging, and this is quite different in style. The story is much simpler and more affecting. I couldn’t get drawn into The Book Thief, as much as I wanted to (Might have been the audio format.)

    Claire: As I’ve continued to think about it, the artifice has bothered me less and the manipulation has bothered me more. (Hard to talk about without spoilers.) I think the artifice works in a fable, and I almost wish he had pushed that a little harder, making the camp less obviously Auschwitz.

    diane: Yes, it is shocking, especially the end. I’m just still processing what I think!

    Kathleen: I know what you mean about having to be in the right frame of mind. For what it’s worth, most (but not all) of this book keeps a distance from the more harrowing elements.

    savidgereads: As you can see, I’m still making up my mind, but I agree that it makes an impact! I’m sure that impact would be even greater on an 11-year-old. But so wonderful that your mother read it to her so they could talk about it! This book demands talking, and if it gets a conversation going, that’s all to the good, in my mind.

    Cara: Thanks! Blogging has really trained me to read more thoughtfully, too.

    Jenny: I agree that the adults near the camps were probably engaging in self-deception, but the power of self-deception is remarkably strong. A 9-year-old boy, though, is different. I’m not sure he’d have a frame of reference for such a thing. I just couldn’t quite buy the ignorance of this particular 9-year-old. I’m not sure that the book softens the grimness as much as it views it from a distance. Until it doesn’t. (I think the ending will aggravate you, FWIW.)

    Jenny: I’d heard mixed reviews as well, and most are very passionate, whichever position they take. I can see why it would inspire such passion. I’ll be interested to see what you think of it, and how the movie compares. (I’m not sure I’m going to bother with the movie myself.)

  12. Mel u says:

    I have seen the movie and read the book. I enjoyed them both-I live in the Philippines-as far as I can tell there is no mention of the Holocaust in the schools here including college-I watched the movie with my teenage daughters and it was very hard to answer them when they asked me if this is a real story and to try to explain at all why the holocaust happened-I thought the movie did a better job than the book with the character of Bruno’s sister but was weaker on the mother-

    I really was moved by Milkweed by Jerry Spineli-set in the Warsaw Ghetto-I like the last 5 pages so much I have read them at least five times

  13. Teresa says:

    Mel u: Despite my own reservations about certain aspects of this book, it’s wonderful to hear that this story is opening doors to conversation, as it did with your daughters.

  14. rebeccareid says:

    I’ve heard the criticism you share and I’m still intrigued and want to read it!! Even if it’s imperfect it sounds like an interesting way to talk about the evil in the world.

  15. Teresa says:

    Rebecca: I agree that it could help start a discussion, as several commenters mentioned that it did for kids they know.

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