I feel like one of the few people who never saw the movie adaptation of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas when it came out. I had completely forgotten about this book until I stumbled onto it earlier this week in the library. Honestly, I was a little concerned about how well the subject of World War II and the holocaust would be handled – I’ve read a few books that romanticized the topic. Thankfully, this book treated the subject with dignity and respect that the subject demands. Further – The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is a beautifully written, fascinating coming-of-age tale of a German boy set in the most horrifying of settings.
Berlin, 1942: When Bruno returns home from school one day, he discovers that his belongings are being packed in crates. His father has received a promotion and the family must move to a new house far, far away, where there is no one to play with and nothing to do. A tall fence stretches as far as the eye can see and cuts him off from the strange people in the distance.
But Bruno longs to be an explorer and decides that there must be more to this desolate new place than meets the eye. While exploring his new environment, he meets another boy whose life and circumstances are very different from his own, and their meeting results in a friendship that has devastating consequences.
What really sets this book apart is the naiveté of the narrative. It’s told from the point of view of a young boy whose main concern is that he has to move away from his best friends. He approaches everything with a sense of innocence – it’s mostly through his innocent characterizations of situations and the insinuations from the adults in the book that slowly unravels the dark nature of the setting. The narration reminded me a lot of Room by Emma Donoghue. It’s fascinating and sobering to read about one of the most horrifying places to ever exist from a child’s perspective – even further, it offers the point of view of a child of a horrific war criminal.
Bruno was a fascinating character – he grew up his whole life looking up to his father, as most children do. He had been incredibly sheltered from the realities of the war that his father is deeply involved in. He begins his story as a typical child – upset about having to move away from his friends, constantly bickering with his older sister, and spending time exploring his new home. As he meets the new people in his surroundings (namely the boy his age on the other side of the fence, Schmuel, and the new servant, Pavel), he begins to grow more uneasy with his new living situation. He also begins developing a deep sense of empathy for those around him – even though he didn’t understand their circumstances, he tried to help them nevertheless (mostly by feeding those in need).
Make sure you have tissues on hand when you read this book. It’s a very fast read, but what it lacks in length it makes up for in raw emotions. It’s a sobering and heartbreaking read – it makes the history feel more personal and more accessible to generations who are nearly a century removed from the horrors of the second World War. If you’re looking for another book that eloquently exposes the horrors of the war through fictional characters, check out The Devil’s Arithmetic by Jane Yolen. 5/5