The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is a fictional tale of the unlikeliest of friends: the son of a Nazi commandant and a Jewish concentration camp inmate. Written by John Boyne and published in 2006 by David Fickling Books, the story was made into a major motion picture in 2008.
The novel, set in Nazi Germany, begins when nine-year-old Bruno and his family must move from their lovely home in Berlin to a new house in an unfamiliar place called "Out-With." Tempted to explore his new environment, Bruno is told that there are certain places that are "Out Of Bounds At All Times And No Exceptions." Unable to fight his adventuresome spirit, however, Bruno ventures forth into the unknown one afternoon.
Bruno comes upon a fence that he follows until he sees a young boy sitting on the other side of the fence. The shoeless boy is wearing striped pajamas and a cloth cap. Bruno also notices that the boy is wearing an armband with a star on it. Bruno makes fast friends with the boy, Shmuel, and they quickly discover that they share the same birthday. The boys discuss their families and where they are from. At the end of their first meeting, Bruno asks Shmuel why there are so many people on his side of the fence and what they are doing there. A few days later, Bruno's father has dinner guests; the man's name is "the Fury" and his date is called Eva. Bruno instantly dislikes the couple. Bruno's sister Gretel, whom he refers to as "the Hopeless Case," is smitten by the man and tries hard to impress him and his lady friend. Bruno, however, is disgusted by his sister's behavior and her budding romance with a young soldier.
Much like Bruno hears "Auschwitz" as "Out-With," he also incorrectly hears "the Führer" as "the Fury." Boyne masterfully tells the story from Bruno's perspective; it is clear that the innocence of Bruno's childhood remains intact despite the fact that he is living on the periphery of a death camp and has met Adolf Hitler.
Bruno continues to explore the woods near his house and often finds himself at the fence spending time with Shmuel. Bruno brings him food, and the friends lament the fact that they cannot explore together or play a game of football. Shmuel confides in Bruno that he is unable to find his father and he is worried. Bruno vows to help Shmuel look for his father; to that end, Shmuel promises to get Bruno some pajamas so that he will blend in on his side of the fence.
One fateful day, Bruno sheds his clothes, dons the pajamas, and sneaks onto Shmuel's side of the fence. As the boys search for Shmuel's father, the soldiers herd the prisoners, Bruno among them, into the gas chambers where they meet their untimely death hand in hand.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas explores the beauty of a child's innocence in a time of war, the common desire we all have for friendship, and the fences—both literal and figurative—that we must all navigate and choose whether or not to break down.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is an unusual story, one of the most difficult and disturbing a teen will ever read. It is the story of an event seared into the fabric of history. It is a fable told through the voice of a child, but it is not for children, and this is not just any child.
Bruno is nine years old, and he's not happy; his father has a new job and he's leaving his comfortable house, his neighborhood and his three best friends behind. His big sister Gretel is no help, for like older sisters everywhere, she's in a world all her own, though it's obvious she isn't thrilled about the move either. Their servants are tight-lipped and nervous, and Bruno's mother tries to explain that this is not only a promotion for his father, it's his duty.
His father shows some but not much sympathy for Bruno. As befits a military man, he is a strict disciplinarian, and the boy tries his best to honor his father's wishes, even though it sometimes involves saying and doing things he doesn't understand. So Bruno says goodbye to his comfortable life and moves far away from the city. His destination isn't a house in the country though at least not like any he's ever imagined. It's a bleak, forbidding place, and instead of a five-story mansion, he lives in a smaller, less comfortable house. He is surrounded by his father's soldiers, including one particularly menacing lieutenant named Kotler, and there's a cook who also appears to be a doctor, much to Bruno's puzzlement. Strangest of all is the barbed-wire fence outside his bedroom window, and the huddled groups of men and boys beyond. Along that fence he'll meet the boy of the book's title.
If you haven't already guessed, John Boyne's The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is a young adult novel about the Holocaust. By focusing on Bruno's innocent and puzzled view of his father's job, Boyne offers a previously unseen perspective on the everyday Germans who took part in the Nazis' ultimate solution. While written with teens in mind, this is certainly a book worthy of adult readers. Already a bestseller in the U.K. and Australia, the novel is well written, compelling and ultimately shocking. It should be noted, however, that the book has garnered criticism from some who argue that the boy's viewpoint trivializes this tragic era. Bruno is definitely naive by today's standards, but this novel isn't set in 2006—it takes place in 1943, when a sheltered child might well have been unaware of Auschwitz and the fate of the Jews who were sent there. Ultimately, it is up to the individual reader to judge whether Boyne's unique approach to the Holocaust adds to the understanding of this troubling time in human history.
James Neal Webb is a copyright researcher at Vanderbilt University.