Author: John Boyne
Paperback: 215 pages
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.
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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