Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Book 93: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

I'm actually surprised I haven't read this earlier since it is a fairly well known novel dealing with the Holocaust, a topic I always tend to gravitate towards.  Perhaps it was the fact that it seemed to be very much marketed for a younger audience (not that this prevented me from reading and loving The Book Thief).  Upon completing the novel, I thought this felt like a fairy tale of the Holocaust until I flipped back to the front and noticed the title page actually read as "The Boy in Striped Pajamas: A Parable."  Boyne mixes realism with events that could maybe have happened because some crazy unbelievable things happened involving the Holocaust, but mostly feel like something that never could have taken place, at least not for a prolonged period of time.  As a result, I think adding that word parable to the title helps - Boyne isn't trying to give his readers an entirely accurate impression of the Holocaust but wants to tell a small personal story involving the Holocaust.
Bruno, the main character, is nine years old when his father gets a promotion, and the family has to move from their large home in Berlin to a smaller house in "Outwith."  His father has been placed in charge of a camp, and Bruno has a view of this camp from his bedroom window, where he can see lots of people in striped pajamas.  While Bruno hates his new home, the lack of friends and the soldiers that are constantly in and out of the house to speak with his father, he eventually decides to explore and walks the perimeter of the fence around the camp until he sees a boy in striped pajamas on the other side.  Bruno and Shmuel strike up a conversation, and continue to meet every day, each on their side of the fence.
Obviously, the idea that a young boy could go undetected while sitting next to a fence of aconcentration camp for a long period of time is the part that seems somewhat fantastical.  The other part of the book that may or may not be believable is Bruno's cluelessness about what is going on.  He has to be told that the people in the camp are Jews, and he feels a bit jealous of Shmuel being on the side of the fence with all the people.  Adult readers of course know exactly what Shmuel means when he says certain things while Bruno just doesn't get it.  He notices that Shmuel is very skinny and even tries to bring him food on occasion, but he still eats the food he brings with him while he is on his way to the fence half the time.
At nine, it probably is easy for Bruno to be wrapped up in his own world, which makes the silences on Shmuel's part all the more poignant for the knowledgeable reader.  Not only does Shmuel not know how to disillusion Bruno, but saying too much might very well get him into trouble since he is speaking not only with a German but with the commandant's son.  That isn't to say that Boyne leaves out all the dark moments - he simply writes them from a nine year old's perspective - Bruno witnesses some things that leave him confused and frightened but he doesn't necessarily know how to process it or how to put it in a context beyond a personal experience with a sadistic soldier.
While I think there are many more powerful Holocaust pieces out there, I would say this was a rather sweet story, and could be enjoyed by both children as an introduction to the Holocaust or older readers that have the ability to fill in the blanks.  It's also rather short, which works in its favor because if the novel had been much longer, I probably would have wanted more meat in the story rather than a simple story of friendship set against a very complicated and horrifying time.

No comments: