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.