YA Book Review - The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne


TheboyinthestripedpyjamasThere is a major flaw at the center of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas: the main character is not believable. Bruno, the 9-year old son of a Nazi SS officer whose promotion to commandant of Auschwitz starts the book, is completely ignorant of the world he lives in. He doesn't know what a Jew is, how to pronounce "Furher," what "Heil Hitler" means, what a Star of David or a swastika is, or what the thousands of people behind the barbed wire fence behind his house are doing there.  This from a boy born in 1934, two years after Hitler rose to power and the son of a high-ranking Nazi who is not a German who went along to get along but was dedicated to eradicating Jews and who "the Fury had great plans for." This from a boy who, in the real world, would have been a member of the Hitler youth. This from a boy who would have heard friends, neighbors and strangers deriding Jews. This from a boy who would have seen a Star of David in Berlin.  This from a boy whose father wore a red, white and black armband on his arm every day. If Bruno would have been five or six then I might have bought it. But, he was a ridiculously immature nine-year old who I kept thinking wasn't so much an innocent as an idiot. Does Boyne expect the reader to believe Bruno's family would have kept their beliefs about Jews, the purity of the Aryan race and Nazi ideology secret? It's patently ridiculous. Bruno's father would have been indoctrinating him, not protecting him from the ideas. To keep that information from your children implies you are uncomfortable with the beliefs and nothing in the book indicated that was the case. So. That was the biggest issue, but not the only one. Shmuel, the boy Bruno meets through the fence because of course there is a large section that is never guarded, is unbelievable in his own way as well. This little boy prisoner can sneak away every day for over a year. And, it is easy enough for a half-starving child to lift the bottom of the chain-link fence enough to scoot under, but he never does. Nor does he ever tell any of his fellow prisoners about the unguarded spot with the wonky fence.  He never calls Bruno out in his ignorance. His father disappears and this little boy, who has lived in a death camp for at least a year, doesn't know where he went. He also doesn't know what happens to the prisoners who "march," but he never sees them return. Gosh, what could be happening to them?

This book was on an end cap at Barnes and Noble titled, "What Every Teen Should Read." Really? It read more like it was written for a child. Boyne never said "Auschwitz," instead dumbing down his protagonist even more by having him mispronounce it "Out With." Boyne doesn't describe an act of violence against a Jew that Bruno witnesses and he, unbelievably, let Shmuel live after being caught by an SS officer stealing food from Bruno's kitchen. By skimming over the details, the climax of the book didn't have the visceral emotion it should have, or easily could have.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (★★) is a dumbed down version of the Holocaust, masquerading as a YA book. While there aren't any gross inaccuracies that I could see (I am, admittedly, not an expert), the mistakes are in what isn't said, what is glossed over and ignored in the guise of being from an unbelievable naive 9-year old boy's perspective.  The best you can hope for is your child or teen will ask questions because Lord knows, Boyne leaves lots of gaps. When they do, you can help educate them about one of the darkest eras in World History because the only thing that will keep us from repeating the mistakes of those before is not forgetting.