The Boy at the Top of the Mountain

John Boyne
  • Review
By – March 23, 2017

Read­ers of John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Paja­mas may have high expec­ta­tions of this new nov­el. They will not be dis­ap­point­ed, but they may be dis­turbed along the way. The nar­ra­tive opens in 1936 Paris with the intro­duc­tion of sev­en-year-old Pier­rot, the only child of a Ger­man World War I vet­er­an and his French wife. Pier­rot is small for his age and is bul­lied. His best friend is Anshel Bron­stein, who lives in the same apart­ment build­ing with his wid­owed moth­er. Anshel is hear­ing-impaired and he and Pier­rot devel­op their own language.

With­in the year, Pier­rot is orphaned and sent to Orleans to an orphan­age, but Anshel’s moth­er alerts Pierrot’s pater­nal aunt, who sends for him to come to Aus­tria, where she serves as house­keep­er to a volatile master.

That mas­ter, of course, is Adolf Hitler, and the home is in Bercht­es­gaden. At his aunt’s urg­ing, Pier­rot becomes less French, more Ger­man. He recalls the rant­i­ngs of his father, who claimed the Ger­mans were robbed of vic­to­ry in the Great War. Pier­rot trans­forms from a sweet, help­ful boy to a rigid, dog­mat­ic prod­uct of Nazi indoc­tri­na­tion. His trans­for­ma­tion to Pieter is indeed dis­turb­ing. He betrays his aunt and ends his friend­ship with Anshel in the name of the Father­land. By the end of the nar­ra­tive, he real­izes his mis­takes and knows he must live with them. In a some­what sur­pris­ing yet high­ly sat­is­fy­ing twist in the epi­logue, the voice of the nar­ra­tive shifts.

Pierrot’s naivety is rem­i­nis­cent of the main char­ac­ter from the Once series by Mor­ris Gleitz­man. Boyne’s abil­i­ty to trans­form Pier­rot is mas­ter­ful and haunt­ing. This is not a book a read­er is like­ly to for­get. There are some high­ly bru­tal scenes. Where Boyne has not shown suf­fi­cient atten­tion is in his use and under­stand­ing of the Ger­man lan­guage. For exam­ple, Pier­rot is giv­en the €Ger­man” name of Pieter. But Peter in Ger­man is Peter.

Rec­om­mend­ed for mature read­ers, ages 10 and up.

Bar­bara Kras­ner is an award-win­ning poet and his­to­ri­an who focus­es her writ­ing on the Jew­ish expe­ri­ence in Amer­i­ca and dur­ing the Holo­caust. She teach­es in the his­to­ry depart­ment of The Col­lege of New Jer­sey and serves as Direc­tor, Mer­cer Holo­caust, Geno­cide & Human Rights Edu­ca­tion Center.

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