Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne

untitled To an adult reader, the plot of this book is clear. During World War II nine-year-old Bruno and his older sister Gretel – the Hopeless Case, as Bruno calls her – have to leave Berlin with their parents. Not for their safety but because their father has been given a new position by the “Fury.” He is to become the new commandant of “Out-With.” When the family arrive at “Out-With” Bruno is horrified. They have left their lovely home in Berlin, Bruno’s three best-friends-for-life and his grandparents for this dismal place? But his attention is snagged by the view from his bedroom window. From there he can see a fence and on the other side, hundreds of men – all wearing the same grey striped pyjamas.

Bruno is an inquisitive and adventurous little boy who wishes to be an explorer when he grows up so it’s not long before he sets off to do just that. This is when he meets a boy sitting on the other side of the fence. Lonely, with only a sharp and condescending older sister for company, Bruno strikes up conversation with the boy, Shmuel, and a friendship develops.

As an adult reading this book, you know what is really happening in Bruno’s life, but Boyne cleverly constructs the book so that a child reader is not put off by the strange words that even Bruno struggles with. The true horror of what is going on is not obvious unless you know the history of this period. However, this is not a book for children of Bruno’s age. It’s a book that will raise very tricky questions for the parent of the child reading it, particularly about the ending. You are bound to be asked what exactly happened at the end.

I cannot praise Boyne’s writing enough. It is a simple enough book for a child to read, but compelling enough for an adult to enjoy. As soon as I finished the book I passed it to my grandmother, who would have been a couple of years older than Bruno during the war and spent most of her time evacuated to Wales. I should point out that my grandmother is not a voracious reader, but she finished this book in three evenings. I even caught her reading it over an afternoon cup of tea. The simplicity of the language is wonderful, but I bet it was not so simple to write.

This book deals with events from a child’s perspective, so nothing that occurs between the adults is ever as clearly stated as it might been from an adult point-of-view. But there is enough to know what is going on, again I cannot praise Boyne highly enough for achieving this.

Despite the fact that Bruno does not understand what is going on around him, the book still manages to chill any reader who has even a cursory knowledge of WWII concentration camps. Gretel, nearly thirteen and infatuated with the young Lieutenant Kothler, begins to take on the political ideas of her father and her tutor. This is horrifying to watch, stunning to see how simply someone can take on these beliefs instead of challenging them. But Bruno only sees Gretel behaving like a silly girl, a Hopeless Case playing up to Lieutenant Kothler, whom Bruno loathes.

One particular scene that stuck out for me was when Bruno remembers the night in Berlin when his grandparents came to celebrate his father’s promotion. His total incomprehension is endearing and understandable, but his grandmother’s disappointment in her son – Bruno’s father – is clear and cutting.

But Bruno is no paragon of virtue. He does things he shouldn’t, lies when he ought to tell the truth and eats without realising how lucky he is to have food. But he’s an engaging young boy, with an inquisitive mind – even if he fails time and again to ask the right questions.

This is a book that I would highly recommend to adults. It’s a gripping depiction of the extremes of politics through innocent eyes. I would also suggest that if you intend to give this to your children that you read it first. For all the simplicity of language and the careful way Boyne does not reveal too much, there is a harsh and heart-breaking story being told here.

David Fickling Books, 2010. ISBN-10: 1849920435. 224pp.

[Nikki is often floored by really incredible books.]

11 comments on “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne

  1. JoV
    December 14, 2010

    Have my eyes on this one for a long time. I’ll read this at some point. Thanks for the great review.

  2. Trilby
    December 14, 2010

    Have to say, I really struggled with this book on a number of levels – mainly in that it plays fast and loose with history to create some cheap thrills (more complimentary reviewers would no doubt call this ‘to powerful effect’!). But then, I struggled from the first page to understand how a boy of Bruno’s age living in Germany at the time wouldn’t have known the word ‘Fuhrer’ (similarly, why would a German boy mispronounce ‘Auschwitz’ as ‘Out-With’? It’s cutesy, and it’s incorrect).

    Boyne came in for a lot of flak when this book was first released but defended it on the grounds that it was never intended to be a realistic portrayal of life on the fringes of a death camp but rather a ‘fable’. The problem is, I suspect most adult readers will discover little worth learning from the ‘fable’, and children as yet unacquainted with the Holocaust will only find it confusing and, yes, quite upsetting. It raises some important questions, I think, about artistic license and responsibility when using such sensitive history – witness Yann Martel’s latest offering, which invited similar criticism – so I’ll be interested to see where the discussion leads from here…

  3. Lisa
    December 14, 2010

    I have to admit that I read this book and had a similar reaction to Trilby. However, so many friends have told me that they enjoyed the book and so I’ve always been meaning to read it again. Have just not been able to bring myself to do so…

  4. Han
    December 14, 2010

    I read it a couple of summers ago on a bus to Loch Lomond. Completed it in one sitting, had to try not to cry

  5. Jackie
    December 14, 2010

    Have you seen the film of this, Nikki? I’m curious as to how it compares.
    I’ve avoided this story because I know it will be overwhelmingly sad. At certain points in my life I read a lot of Holocaust books & had to stop because it was affecting me too much. This one sounds like it would be good for older kids & adults. The child’s perspective would be different, but may make it even more heartbreaking.
    A possible explanation for the odd words is the character might be hearing impaired, something that society did not admit at the time of the story.

  6. Nikki
    December 15, 2010

    I thought that this book might be one of those that divided opinion. And I suspected that the history might not be entirely accurate (I confess I have only GCSE knowledge of concentration camps and that was a while ago!). Trilby, I also wondered at the use of “Fury” and “Out-with” but I assumed that this was more for the English reader who might be quite young and intimidated by the real words. Also, Bruno is incredibly naive for his age and also very self-centred (although I still liked him, despite being very frustrated with him sometimes) which was obviously a device to keep him ignorant of what was really going on.

    What I really admired about the book was the clever way that Boyne revealed things to the reader without Bruno understanding. Having attempted to write a story from a child’s perspective in which the parents reasons for divorce are clear to the reader but not the child, I know how difficult that balance can be to achieve and I do think that Boyne did an excellent job.

    I didn’t see the ending come, which was perhaps naive of me. But I assumed that as this was a book for children it wouldn’t end in a hard-hitting manner. I think it’s a good book for older children because it starts them asking questions about the period and I do think Gretel’s behaviour and his mother’s behaviour can provoke a lot of discussion. I think it’s important that people realise what went on and how people just went along with it and I do think this book does a good job of showing that.

    Jackie, I haven’t seen the film but someone offered to lend it to me. I’ll comment again when I’ve seen it.

  7. Gwilym
    December 15, 2010

    I’m afraid I side with Trilby on this book – the history is sketchy at best, irritatingly unbelievable at worst. That a nine year old boy, son of a prominent Nazi/SS official would know nothing of the Fuhrer and Third Reich ideology is plain wrong. It’s particularly difficult to try and swallow such a notion when we know that boys as young as 12 were being drafted into the defence of Germany towards the end of the war – a fair number of those with a vigorous fighting spirit fostered by the ideological brainwashing of the Hitler Youth. The portrayal of Auschwitz isn’t great either – to my mind it’s skirting around the truths of life for camp inmates actually deflates the enormity of the fascist crimes. It is also choking to think that Boyne suggests that Bruno may be representative of a wider civilian opinion in Germany and the occupied lands, that is to say that people did not know or understand what was happening. Convenient as it is to portray the Holocaust as perpetrated in its entirety by the SS, it ignores both history and a willingness to accept that the atrocities were facilitated by everyday people: denouncers, civil servants, industrialists, and those many civilians – German or otherwise – who held entrenched anti-semitic views.

    Nonetheless, I can put aside my academic interests in history and atrocity to see the worth of Boyne’s book: a fable that relates this tragedy of humanity to a new generation, building moral revulsion to prevent such acts ever being repeated. That it is aimed at children necessitates the spectrum of right, wrong, good and evil, should be painted so starkly. I can only hope that as the children who read the book – the adults too – try and read a little more of the factual basis of both the Holocaust and the ideology of the Third Reich. Uncomfortable as it may be, it is important to understand that the moral distinction between those who ran the gas chambers and those who lived outside the fence isn’t as clear cut as we sometimes might want it to be.

    Historical gripes aside, if this book goes some way to steering a child against popular prejudice then it can only be a good thing.

  8. Nikki
    December 15, 2010

    I’d be surprised if someone didn’t want to go away and learn more about the period, Gwilym. As there is very little factual history portrayed but a lot of awful things happening, I think someone reading this would want to read something more factual in order to learn more. If only to make sense of what this book shows. Even if they only look on the internet, that’s a good thing.

    Yes, Bruno is maddeningly ignorant (it’s the food, the way he casually munches away, that really got to me) but for the story he has to remain that way. It’s a plot device really, so I decided not to focus on it. I was very interested in Gretel, her motives for parroting the party line and her mother’s motives for keeping quiet about it all. This book made me want to read something about the people on the other side of fence, the people that just kept quiet. Are there any books, fiction or otherwise, that cover that uncomfortable subject?

  9. Gwilym
    December 15, 2010

    The Holocaust: The Jewish Tragedy (Martin Gilbert) is a strong but emotionally demanding read that provides a comprehensive history of the Holocaust from its foundations in anti-semitism and its execution. I myself will soon be reading Night by Elie Wiesel about his time in Auschwitz and of course there are many more such as Anne Frank whose writing illustrates all sides of those terrible times.

    There is still a difference of opinion on the extent to which ordinary civilians in Germany knew about what was happening to the Jews – resettlement, arrests etc. are unavoidably obvious, but not all writers agree that ordinary civilians knew of the *purpose* of Jewish persecution. Christopher Browning writes about the apparent ordinary nature of police batallions in his book detailing operations in Poland. That “ordinary” nature (a view which I agree with, to a certain extent) of people’s involvement in crimes against humanity is supported by Hannah Arendt on the “banality of evil” and also with psychological experiments such as the Milgram experiment and the Stanford Prison experiment.

    It’s also worth keeping in mind that the Gestapo (internal secret police of the Third Reich) were a relatively small tool in the Nazi machine and were aided by civilian information. What drives that is difficult to pinpoint – potential interviewees are not known for being candid when asked if they had informed on a neighbour, but given the history of anti-semitism in Europe (pogroms etc) along with later cases such as the Stasi in East Germany I think we can speculate that a not insignificant number of people would have “sold” the Jews through personal dislike or opportunism.

    Much of this is argued to and fro in academic papers so might be best avoided – but certainly the involvement of civilians isn’t limited to the German/Polish Holocaust deportations – it was known in Yugoslavia during the Second World War (Jasenovac concentration camp) and indeed, the indifference or indeed, proactive persecution of neighbours was noted in the more recent wars in Bosnia & Croatia. Elsewhere in the world, the Rwandan genocide was helped along by complicity of ordinary people or other organisations (such as the Church).

    Of course, the topic is complex – Gretel is a stronger character for me in that respect – it is easy to understand how admiration for a parent or some form of infatuation would impress unethical ideas on impressionable minds – how else can racist views, for instance, be respawned throughout normal households in our own countries? Just recently the Daily Express ran a headline declaring that “ONE IN FIVE WILL BE ETHNICS” when speaking of the British population – is this another “Jewish Question” to which we need a “Final Solution”? How far is that step from speculation to persecution?

    The truth of course is that our nature creates Oskar Schindler or Wilm Hosenfeld, risking their own safety to help fellow humans – and it creates the neighbour who doesn’t speak out when their slightly richer neighbour is dragged away by the state.

  10. Gwilym
    December 15, 2010

    Oh, and woops – I forgot to mention Ian Kershaw – Hitler, the Germans, and the Final Solution. One also supposes that for anyone really interested, an examination of Russia under Stalin, Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge, and Hutu Power in Rwanda might also examine why such things happen.

  11. Nikki
    December 17, 2010

    Gwilym, thank you so much for that post. I’m noted your recommendations. I think the responses to my original post prove that for all this is not the strongest book about the time, it provokes discussion. This can only be a good thing. Thanks once more for those titles.

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This entry was posted on December 14, 2010 by in Entries by Nikki and tagged , , , , .

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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