The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

John Boyne
  • Review
By – October 24, 2011

I would like to write a review of this unusu­al book, but the pub­lish­er doesn’t want me to. If I review this book, I will have to tell you what it is about, and the point of the whole expe­ri­ence, the pub­lish­er will say, is to come to the slow real­iza­tion of where the action is tak­ing place, and thus feel the hor­ror as it all dawns on you with var­i­ous a‑ha” moments.

It is for this rea­son that the nov­el should be suc­cess­ful among young adult read­ers. The book flap states, We think it is impor­tant that you start to read this book with­out know­ing what it is about. If you do start to read this book, you will go on a jour­ney with a nine-year-old boy called Bruno.… 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.” 

Intrigued? Imag­ine the naïve but sin­cere 12-year-old with a smat­ter­ing of Holo­caust edu­ca­tion as he reads about how young Bruno’s fam­i­ly moves from their com­fort­able home in Berlin to a rather des­o­late place that Bruno thinks is called Out- With”. The year is not spec­i­fied. Some­body named the Fury” has come to din­ner and believes Bruno’s father is des­tined for great­ness. Father wears a fan­tas­tic uni­form” and has an impor­tant job.” Bruno miss­es his friends. Sol­diers say mean things about peo­ple. The family’s wait­er at the new, gloomy house secret­ly tells Bruno he was once a doc­tor. Out the win­dow, Bruno notices peo­ple wear­ing striped pajamas. 

There is a pal­pa­ble sense of mys­tery and dread as a young read­er gath­ers the many clues enabling him to fig­ure out where Bruno now has to live and what his father’s impor­tant” job is. When Bruno finds a young friend through clan­des­tine meet­ings at the long fence sep­a­rat­ing the two boys, the read­er has already con­clud­ed that this sto­ry will not have a hap­py end­ing. Young adults will appre­ci­ate the author’s trust in their capa­bil­i­ties to com­pre­hend his­tor­i­cal events with­out adult expla­na­tion. But they are also required to place them­selves inside young Bruno’s head — -to become nine-year-olds with no his­tor­i­cal ref­er­ence to the time at hand, and thus, no under­stand­ing of why Out-With” is such a tru­ly awful place. 

The prob­lem with this rather dar­ing Holo­caust sto­ry is that adults read­ing it will like­ly not share the expe­ri­ence of the child. Adults have too much frame of ref­er­ence and can dis­miss out of hand the unlike­li­hood of the events as described. Adults will right­ly com­ment, How is it pos­si­ble for a Ger­man child to be that naïve? Hasn’t he heard a thing about Jews by his age? Is this sup­posed to be some sort of fable? Doesn’t it triv­i­al­ize the Holo­caust, since it is just so pre­pos­ter­ous?” It will be inter­est­ing to note the reac­tions of adult review­ers when the book is released in Sep­tem­ber, and then it will be worth­while to com­pare those reac­tions to what kids say. I am guess­ing that the more one knows about life at a con­cen­tra­tion camp, the more irri­tat­ing the book will be. But there are some young peo­ple who know just enough, and the pow­er of this nov­el will be some­thing they will not soon for­get. Over­all, this fable” is a unique approach to the Holo­caust for young read­ers and one sure to pro­voke much discussion. 

Lisa Sil­ver­man is direc­tor of Sinai Tem­ple’s Blu­men­thal Library in Los Ange­les and a for­mer day school librar­i­an. She is the for­mer chil­dren’s book review edi­tor of Jew­ish Book World.

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