This is one of the books where you can expect to become increasingly anxious as each page is turned. Not so surprising since THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PAJAMAS is a novel about the Holocaust during World War II. Awarded five stars on Goodreads.
With a lifelong interest in this time period, and as someone who has read dozens of related historical novels, what makes this novel so devastating is that it’s told through the naive eyes of a nine year old boy.
At the beginning of the story, Bruno Wisitzki’s family has just had the great honor of a visit by the German Leader Adolph Hitler, who has promoted Bruno’s father to Commandant. To Bruno’s chagrin, the promotion means his entire family must leave Berlin and move to their new posting in Poland, where Bruno’s father will head the concentration camp called Auschwitz.
At first the boy is primarily concerned about leaving behind the only home he’s known, his closest friends, and his nearby grandparents. Though their new house is full of soldiers and servants, Bruno is lonely. Until one day when he meets a boy who lives on the other side of a high fence, the boy in the striped pajamas.
Author John Boyne (one of my favorites) uses this lone boy and his family to explore themes like change, family connection, friendship, antisemitism, and the brutal impact of war on the human psyche. Ultimately, however, the novel focuses on the budding friendship of Bruno and his friend, Shmuel. And the bond they forge over time.
The book reads like a fable. It’s simply written and short (216 pages) but profoundly powerful. Somehow the trust and innocence of Bruno makes the unfolding of events so much worse. Because as readers, we are already privy to the knowledge of what happened at Auschwitz.
This is definitely NOT a children’s book. But there are good reasons why it has won so many awards and been made into a movie (2008). I’d say it’s essential reading for anyone interested in World War II and/or the Holocaust.
To be fair, I want to also mention that this book has received quite a bit of criticism for not accurately depicting the horrors of the Holocaust. Chiefly the criticism surrounds Boyne choosing a German family and its son as the focus of the reader’s sympathy, rather than the Jewish victims. (You can read more about that criticism here.) While I think much of this criticism is valid, that did not prevent me from experiencing the power of the Holocaust story from an innocent German child’s perspective.
More about the author, John Boyne.
You may be interested in my reviews of other books by Boyne: