The Boy in the Striped Pajamas By John Boyne
I read The Boy in the Striped Pajamas just over a year ago. A friend had purchased it at an airport in Ireland and passed it on to me. He refused to say anything about it and I have been doing the same with other friends and family members. All of us have thought it brilliant. It has now been released in paperback in North America, a different cover and a very different marketing plan - it has been listed as a "fable" and a young adult novel. I don't think it is either. I would hesitate to place this book in the hands of a child without some preparation. Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl is often read by children at about the age of 12, and I think this book would be appropriate for readers of about the same age, at the very youngest. I also think that parents should make themselves available to discuss what the child is reading in the case of both of these books. In the case of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas I would encourage adults to read it before choosing to pass it on to their children.
This is the story of a family. The father is a military officer, the mother at home, and two children, nine-year-old Bruno and his 12-year-old sister, Gretel. The family lives in Berlin, but they are about to move to another city, as the father has been transferred. None of them are pleased at the prospect of moving but it is considered a promotion for the father and, as he is a military officer, he has no choice in any case.
The move is made and we find the family members lonely, while the father is busy with his new job. The children look out of the windows to see a fenced enclosure full of people in what Bruno takes to be "striped pajamas". Apart from the strange surroundings, life is quite normal within the house - Bruno and Gretel bicker as siblings do, and both miss their friends. Bruno, against explicit instructions from his parents, explores as children will do. He meets another boy - on the other side of the fence - and they strike up a sort of friendship. They are both missing their former lives and their friends.
Bruno cannot understand what is going on and why it is forbidden to ask questions. I think that is what I found so poignant about this book. The holocaust makes no more sense to us than it does to Bruno - he cannot possibly understand what he is witnessing. We have tried to understand how it happened - the consequences of the decisions made after World War I, the rise of Hitler and his fanaticism - but none of it helps us to understand how the world could have allowed the holocaust to happen. But happen it did - destroying the lives of families on all sides of the fence.
The holocaust is a topic that should be read about, taught in the classroom and discussed at home. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas might be just the book to start that conversation.