The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne

Title:  The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

Author:  John Boyne

Paperback:  215 pages

ISBN:  9780552773805

Book Challenges:  War Through the Generations World War II Reading Challenge

‘I’m Shmuel,’ said the little boy.

Bruno scrunched up his face, not sure that he had heard the little boy right.  ‘What did you say your name was?’ he asked.

‘Shmuel,’ said the little boy as if it was the most natural thing in the world.  ‘What did you say your name was?’

‘Bruno,’ said Bruno.

‘I’ve never heard of that name,’ said Shmuel.

‘And I’ve never heard of your name,’ said Bruno.  ‘Shmuel.’  He thought about it.  ‘Shmuel,’ he repeated.  ‘I like the way it sounds when I say it.  Shmuel.  It sounds like the wind blowing.’

‘Bruno,’ said Shmuel, nodding his head happily.  ‘Yes, I think I like your name too.  It sounds like someone who’s rubbing their arms to keep warm…  I’m nine,’ he said.  ‘My birthday is April the fifteenth nineteen thirty-four.’

Bruno’s eyes opened wide and his mouth made the shape of an O.  ‘I don’t believe it,’ he said… ‘my birthday is april the fifteenth too.  And I was born in nineteen thirty-four.  We were born on the same day… We’re like twins,’ said Bruno.

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne, pages 109-110

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne is a story of friendship told through the eyes of Bruno, the nine-year-old son of a concentration camp Commandant.  Uprooted from friends and the only home he’s ever known, Bruno hates his new home in “Out-With,” his mispronunciation of Auschwitz, and makes sure everyone knows it.  But one day, when he goes out exploring the area around his house, he meets a boy his own age on the other side of the fence where everyone wears striped pyjamas all day.  The two quickly become friends, and meet as often as possible at the same time and spot everyday from then on.

One of the things I like about this book is Boyne’s layered subtleties.  Bruno, the naive and sheltered innocent, passes along clues of his mother’s infidelity, drinking and depression, as well as the competition that goes on between Gretel, his twelve-turning-thirteen year-old sister, and his mother for the attention of the young Lieutenant Koltor.  Bruno witnesses but can’t quite grasp the difference between him and his family and the people on the other side of the fence, asking different people about it with varying degrees of failure to get a satisfactory answer.  His father tells him the others aren’t people -not really, not in the way we think of.  The Lieutenant calls them a derogatory name that is never passed along in the book.  Gretel comes the closest to answering him, failing only because she herself doesn’t understand it, either, telling him that the people on the other side were Jews and they were The Opposite, and The Opposite hate the Jews.

There are a few things that just got under my skin with this book, however.  For instance, if these people are German, then I assume they speak German in their thoughts as well as conversations with one another.  I found it mildly irritating that Bruno would think “Auschwitz” would sound like “Aus mit” (the direct translation “Out-with”).  Or that he would hear “Der Führer” and think people were calling Hitler “Das Wut”.  Also, there are a lot of repetition in the book.  Okay, I get it… Father’s office is “Out of bounds at all times with no exceptions.”  I got that the first time.  And I caught it on page 1 that Bruno had some stuff that belonged to him and were nobody else’s business.  Another thing I really wish Boyne had added to the book was how Bruno and Shmuel would have spent their birthday.  No doubt Bruno would have had a party with cake and a big dinner, but how would he have shared the special day with his “twin”?

Boyne’s storytelling in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is reminiscent of Scout’s recounting in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, though not as well-done nor is Bruno as developed as a character as Scout was.  In Boyne’s attempt to reach as broad an audience as possible, the story is a bit like thin gruel.  Everyone can digest it, but it hasn’t got very much flavor.  If you are looking for a good book that glimpses the lives of the people during Nazi Germany, I’d recommend The Book Thief by Markus Zusak.  The writing is magical, the storytelling point-of-view is unique, and the depth of even the tertiary characters are better than Bruno’s.

Still, I’m passing this book on to my kids.  I think it’s a good book to introduce young and reluctant readers to the subjects:  The Holocaust, racism, hate, friendship, loyalty, love.  I think 4th and 5th graders, particularly boys of that age, would enjoy this book the most.  For me, a mom with a children the same ages as Bruno and Gretel (not to mention the same relationship as the bickering siblings, as well), I found Bruno to be an exasperatingly annoying little whiner at times. 

I give The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne 3 out of 5 stars.  It’s an acceptable read, but for me, as forgettable as Bruno found his three best friends for life.   In a year, I doubt I’ll even remember their names.

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In 2008, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas was made into a movie.  I’ll have to put it on the top of my Netflix Queue, it looks fairly good.  Maybe they’ll address the birthday issue for me in it.

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BTT ~ Ah! To Be a Virgin Again!

Booking Through Thursday

What book would you love to be able to read again for the first time?

(Interestingly, I thought that I had thought this one up myself, but when I started scrolling through the Suggestions, found that Rebecca had suggested almost exactly this question a couple months ago. So, we both get credit!)

I love the thought of being able to have a fresh mind to read my favorite books again for the first time.  Sometimes, a book can be read a second time (or third, and more) and still appreciated and learned from, but to have that sense of not-knowing, and of biting your nails for the character, to experience the injustices and learn the lessons for the first time again would be a gift.

I would love to wipe my mind of the movie and book of To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.   To NOT know the outcome of the court case and to feel Scout and Jem’s pain as they realize that justice and the law do not always run in the same pack would be great.  To wonder what Boo Radley was, a ghost or a man?  and to hide Dill under the bed, only to get caught by our father… well, It’d be like falling in love with your first love again.

Another book I’d love to read for the first time again would be The Book Thief by Markus Zusak.  It is so incredibly powerful and the poetry of it so beautiful, that I’m sure it can withstand re-reading again and again.  However, to feel that thrill, that wonder… that terror… to go on that journey again, new once more, would be an experience I’d just about be willing to pay money for.

How about you?  What books would you like to have a second “first-time” with?

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Title:  The Book Thief

Author:  Markus Zusak

Paperback:  354 pages

Publisher:  Transworld Publishers (div of Random House)

Publish Date:  2005

ISBN:  9780552773898

Miscellaneous: Don’t forget to check out this review’s companion post. It includes info on The Book Thief‘s future as a movie, and several quotes from the book I wasn’t able to work into this review.

On June 23, 1942, there was a group of French Jews in a German prison, on Polish soil.  The first person I took was close to the door, his mind racing, then reduced to pacing, then slowing down, slowing down…

Please believe me when I tell you that I picked up each soul that day as if it were newly born.  I even kissed a few weary, poisoned cheeks.  I listened to their last, gasping cries.  Their French words.  I watched their love-visions and freed them from their fear.

I took them all away, and if ever there was a time I needed distraction, this was it.  In complete desolation, I looked at the world above.  I watched the sky as it turned from silver to grey to the colour of rain.  Even the clouds tried to look the other way.

Sometimes, I imagined how everything appeared above those clouds, knowing without question that the sun was blond, and the endless atmosphere was a giant blue eye.

They were French, they were Jews, and they were you.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, page 358

I finished The Book Thief  by Markus Zasuk on Tuesday, but have not been able to stop thinking about it since.  Normally, I sit down and write the review as soon as I finish a book, then pick up the next book and move on.  However, when I read the last words of The Book Thief :

A LAST NOTE FROM YOUR NARRATOR:  I am haunted by humans.

I found myself not wanting to let the book go.  I told myself I wanted to wait to review it so it could sink in and ruminate.  I had already posted it on BookMooch figuring, like most books, I wouldn’t want to reread it, and it was mooched up right away, but now I don’t want to give it up.  I have put off starting Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince because I don’t want to put anything else in there ever again.  All of this is utterly baffling to me because I have never had an attachment or a reaction to any book like this.

The book itself, plot-wise and such, is easy to sum up.  It is the story of Liesel Meminger, the book thief, who comes to live the Hubermann’s at age nine as their foster daughter.  On the way to Molching, where the Hubermann’s live, Liesel’s younger brother dies and is buried in a cemetery at the next stop.  It is in this place she “steals” her first book, The Gravedigger’s Handbook, after it falls out of the pocket of the apprentice gravedigger.  As the novel progresses, Liesel makes friends with other children on Himmel (a word that means “heaven”) Street, the Hubermann’s take in and hide a Jew, and Liesel discovers the awe-inspiring private library of the mayor’s wife, from which she liberates a book now and then.  All this is told by the book’s narrator, Death.

Summarizing the book is simple.  Explaining and conveying how it effected me, the reader, is anything but.  First of all, Zusak writes with a poetic beauty that captures the way children take in the world around them.  He often crosses the communication of the five senses:

At times, in that basement, she woke up tasting the sound of the accordion in her hears.  She could feel the sweet burn of champagne on her tongue. -p. 365

One line I remember but was unable to find said something like “The smell of the sound of my footsteps,”   and there are so many more lines like these in the book.

Another concept Zusak descriptively conveys is the power of words.</p>

Once, words had rendered Liesel useless, but now, when she sat on the floor, with the mayor’s wife at her husband’s desk, she felt an innate sense of power.  It happened every time she deciphered a new word or pieced together a sentence. -p. 154

She couldn’t tell exactly where the words came from.  What mattered was that they reached her.  They arrived and kneeled next to the bed. -p. 246

After a miscarriaged pause, the mayor’s wife edged forward and picked up the book.  She was battered and beaten up, and not from smiling this time.  Liesel could see it on her face.  Blood leaked from her nose and licked at her lips.  Her eyes had blackened.  Cuts had opened up and a series of wounds were rising to the surface of her skin.  All from words.  From Liesel’s words. -p. 273

Yes, the Fuhrer decided that he would rule the world with words. “I will never fire a gun,” he said.  “I will not have to…”  His first plan of attack was to plant the words in as many areas of his homeland as possible…  He watched them grow, until eventually, great forests of words had risen throughout Germany.  It was a nation of Farmed thoughts. -p. 451

Frighteningly, it was exactly through the power of words and a healthy dose of charisma that Hitler was able to accomplish all the evil that was done in his name.  He himself didn’t do the physical work, that would have required him to be in several places at once making that impossible, but through the words of his speeches and policies others took up his cause.  Even more frightening is that his words are still used and followed to this day by some.

Also, through the use of Death, the ultimate impartial onlooker, as narrator Zusak is able to make epiphanic observations about human beings:

In years to come, he would be a giver of bread, not a stealer – proof again of the contradictory human being.  So much good, so much evil.  Just add water. -p. 171

I’ve seen so many young men over the years who think they’re running at other young men.  They are not.  They’re running at me. -p. 182

Death also points out that, beginning with houses of cards and sandcastles, humans “watch everything that was so carefully planned collapse and… smile at the beauty of destruction.”  And he states a couple of times that the human child is much cannier than the adult.

By far, however, the most important observation Death makes, the concept that sets the tenor of the entire book is this:

AN OBSERVATION
A pair of train guards.
A pair of gravediggers.
When it came down to it, one
of them called the shots. The
other did what he was told.The
question is, what if the

other is a lot more than one?
-p. 30

What happens when there are a lot more people who simply do as there told, without question?  What happens to a society when a madman can rule through eloquent speeches, expressing ideals of hatred, and inspiring others to carry out morally reprehensible acts of violence and wickedness?

The Book Thief by Markus Zasuk is haunting and breath-taking, poetically beautiful and filled with truth.  Death often expresses sardonic, almost bitter, statements of irony, all the while telling the reader he is impartial.  He points out both the evil and the good of humans, expresses both disappointment and admiration of the species among whom he walks and collects.  It is a Homeric work that is full of joy and sorrow, anger and forgiveness, love and loss.  It is the story of a handful of people in Nazi Germany during 1939-1945; adults, children, Catholic, Nazi, and Jew, the “free” (was anyone truly free then?) and the hidden, the epitome of the “master race” and the persecuted and annihilated.

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If you’ll take a look to the right, you’ll notice I’ve added a new widget in the sidebar labelled “Mt. TBR Hall of Fame.”  This is my Top 10 favorite books of all-time.  This, honestly, is an imprecise feat, as I know I’ll think of a book that I liked better but forgot, or I’ll read a book that will replace a book on here, and that is okay because I can always edit it.  When I added the widget, I was in the middle of reading The Book Thief, but it had already impressed me enough to be listed in 6th place… and I hadn’t even finished it yet.  And after finishing it and digesting it and writing this review, it has moved up to first place.

Obviously, as The Book Thief by Markus Zasuk is now my all-time favorite book, I give it 5 out of 5 stars.  It should be included in school curriculum alongside The Diary of Anne Frank and Elie Wiesel’s NightThe Book Thief has both historicity and literary eloquence, and will undoubtedly become a classic.

 hated it!didn't like itIt was okayLiked it.Loved it!

Again, don’t forget to check out this review’s companion post.