The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne (Random House, 2006)
In an interview at the end of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, author John Boyne is asked if he considers the novel “a children's book.” He responds, “I think of it as a book. I don't think of it as a children's book or an adults' book. I'm not entirely sure I know what the difference is between a children's book and an adult's book.” (p. 5) Although seemingly a simple answer, Boyne is rather profound here because it is true; a well-written book, especially one that falls into the category of “fable,” as Boyne places The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, can appeal to readers at all age levels.
As a consultant to the New Jersey Commission of the Holocaust, a division of the New Jersey State Department of Education, one of my responsibilities is to address various groups on Holocaust education. This includes speaking to parents and educators on how and when to introduce the concept of genocide to youngsters, as well as going out to schools and talking to students on the subject itself. Finding the right literature to use with students is a challenge because youngsters develop the maturity to handle the subject at different times, and while a teacher might think a particular work is appropriate, a book can have a powerful effect on a child if he/she is not prepared for it.
Because The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is told through the eyes of a very naïve nine year old German child, Bruno, the novel is a good choice to introduce the topic to adolescents. Bruno, the son of a Nazi commandant, has lived a protected and lovely life in Berlin. His biggest problem is his domineering and bossy older sister, Gretel, whom Bruno refers to as “the Hopeless Case.” However, in the first chapter of the book, Bruno finds the family maid, Maria, packing his belongings because, as he is informed the family is being moved to a place called “Out With,” on the command of his father's superior, “the Fury.”
Upon arrival at their new home in “Out With,” Bruno is desperately unhappy. He misses the family's five story house in Berlin with its interesting nooks to explore. Even more, he longs for his three best friends, Karl, Daniel, and Martin, whom he swears he will never forget. Bruno and Gretel do not attend school in their isolated new environment, and they are pretty much ignored by the self-absorbed adults in the area. Bruno also pines for his grandmother, who used to amuse her grandchildren by writing plays and creating clever costumes for the children to wear during performances.
Due to a huge falling out before the move to “Out With,” Bruno's grandmother made clear to her son that she disapproved of what he had become in his ambition to please the Fuhrer. While Bruno's father parades around in his elegant uniform, Bruno's grandmother cries out, “The people you have to dinner in this house. Why, it makes me sick. And to see you in that uniform makes me want to tear the eyes from my head!” (p. 93) When she storms out of the house, a permanent rift is created between mother and son, one which will impact Bruno greatly in his future. The unspoken truth hovers over Bruno's family and follows them into the forests in Poland.
Shortly after arriving at the new house, Bruno is quite taken with the hoards of people mulling about behind a fence, not far from their property. These sad-looking, emaciated souls wander aimlessly, wearing striped pajamas and odd caps. Bruno is captivated by these strange people, but knows better than to query his parents, or the detested Lieutenant Kohler, who becomes a frequent visitor in their home about their condition.
One day Bruno decides to defy his authoritarian father and take a long walk to explore the area. It is on this occasion that he spies “the dot that became a speck that became a blob that became a figure that became a boy.” (p. 104) Fortunately, although the other child is Polish, he speaks German and is able to converse with Bruno. The boy's name is Shmuel, which Bruno finds very peculiar. In the course of their conversation the boys quickly learn that they are both nine years old and share the very same birth date.
From that point on, Bruno's life becomes about meeting Shmuel by the fence daily, and bonding with his lone friend. Bruno does not understand why Shmuel is so thin, or why he doesn't have a coat, or why he cannot join Bruno on the other side of the fence. As a year's time passes, Bruno's past life in Berlin begins to fade, he cannot remember the names of his companions there, and he no longer misses the beautiful home in Berlin. He lives to spend a little time each day with his great friend, Shmuel.
As the book races to its shocking conclusion, all of the horror of the Holocaust is laid out in simplicity, without the specific gory details set forth by Elie Wiesel in his masterpiece Night. In The Boy in the Striped Pajamas the passion and power of the human condition is depicted through a relationship between two little boys that is based on mutual love and respect. The irony of the ending is, indeed, like an Aesop's fable, and certainly worthy of a discussion based on the allegory of two children who meet on opposite sides of a fence and share the same birthday.
John Boyne concludes The Boy in the Striped Pajamas with these words, “And that's the end of the story about Bruno and his family. Of course all this happened a long time ago and nothing like that could ever happen again. Not in this day and age.” (p.216) This chilling statement leaves the reader to ponder the stupidity of building walls or fences between people in an effort to keep humans permanently separate in our differences.