Donna LaValley's Reviews > The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne
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Jul 06, 12

Read in July, 2012

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne is juvenile literature designed to inform students about and develop compassion for Holocaust victims. Privileged 9 year old Bruno suddenly must move away from his 5 story home and grandparents in cultured Berlin, and move with his parents and older sister to an undisclosed location (probably Auschwitz) where his father will command a death camp. The home is inferior to that in Berlin, and there are no children to play with. He hates it and complains forcefully. (He IS a little Nazi in the making.) Despite having had friends in Berlin to talk to, an older sister with whom to discuss important life matters, and a tutor who specializes in history, he still, one year later, seems unable to get it that Germany is at war. He seems 6 years old. Although corrected several times, he calls Hitler “Fury” (not Fuhrer) and the location “Out With.”

Eventually he discovers a boy his own age on the other side of the long, barbed-wire-topped fence. The 2 meet every afternoon to talk with the fence between them. Having been born on the same day, the author demonstrates they are equals, like twins in “opposite” lives. The Polish boy, however, speaks 5 languages and is slowly starving. Bruno brings him bits of bread and cheese, but when he attempts to carry chocolate cake, he eats it while walking, and sometimes eats the bread as well.

Bruno is maddening because although he is capable of reading books like Treasure Island, he doesn’t fathom that the people in the camp are “prisoners.” This word does not enter the text of the book. It is frankly inconceivable that a 9 or 10 year old boy had never encountered the concept of a “prisoner.” Instead the author tries to maintain that Bruno is innocent, imagining he can invite Shmuel to tea, or that he can be invited to the camp.

There are inconsistencies of language, too. I thought perhaps this was the author’s first book, but it seems to be the second, and an award winner in Ireland.

The reason I thought this might be a first book is partly because he makes a mistake some new writers make in juvenile literature: to mix undeveloped adult themes in a children’s story. Here, a good-looking, arrogant young soldier flirts with his 12 year old sister, but it is Bruno’s mother who whispers with him and meets him behind closed doors. When this cruel 18-year-old is suddenly transferred, there is no explanation, just innuendo. This same soldier did something violent to Pavel, a man befriended by Bruno, but the author cowardly leaves specifics unsaid. Student and adult readers don’t need to be left wondering. Describe what happened to Pavel (is he dead?) even if in general terms to avoid leaving a plot point unfinished. As for the mother/young Nazi hints, leave them out of the story – they weren’t necessary at all and would simply confuse a young reader.

The final chapter is sad but a fitting end. Spoiler alert: On the day before he is to return home to Berlin, Shmuel brings Bruno a set of striped pajamas so he can enter the compound. He does so, and winds up in a gas chamber or crematorium, holding hands with his Jewish friend. His disappearance is a mystery. Much later his father finally figures it out when he sees his son’s clothes near the fence, which is easily lifted in that spot. At this point the professional Nazi death camp commandant cries, knowing his orders have killed his own son.

The Nazis kept meticulous records of most of their operations. That Bruno wasn’t seen or counted in some way seems illogical, but is okay in the slipshod logic of this story.

As a teacher I collect and use many juvenile lit books for cross-curricular use. I won’t be using this one.

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Comments (showing 1-1 of 1) (1 new)

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message 1: by Mitch (new)

Mitch After reading a small way into your review, I realized that I'd watched this via DVD from the local library. It doesn't end quite the same, as I recall, but it was memorable.


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