Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne

Title: The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas
Author: John Boyne
ISBN: 0385610319, David Fickling Books, 2006
Genre: Young Adult, Historical Fiction
Rating: C

First Line: One afternoon, when Bruno came home from school, he was surprised to find Maria, the family's maid-- who always kept her head bowed and never looked up from the carpet-- standing in his bedroom, pulling all his belongings out of the wardrobe and packing them in four large wooden crates, even the things he'd hidden at the back that belonged to him and were nobody else's business.

Bruno is the son of a high-ranking SS officer in Nazi Germany. He and his older sister, Gretel, are growing up in luxury in Berlin when Hitler promotes their father and they find themselves moving to "Out-With" in Poland. Neither of the children have any idea what sort of place Out-With (Auschwitz) is, and they wonder what in the world all the people dressed in striped pajamas are doing on the other side of that tall fence. One day Bruno goes exploring and meets Shmuel, a young boy wearing striped pajamas who lives on the other side of the fence. They become friends.

I had heard many good things about this book, and I looked forward to reading it. If it's read at face value and as if it's a fable, it can be a very powerful book indeed. However, I had problems with it. 99% of the time I have no trouble with my "willing suspension of disbelief." I can turn off my judgement and let the writer tell me a story, and I'll believe it... as long as nothing throws me out of the narrative. I kept getting tossed out of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, and I still have a few scrapes and bruises from the experience.

The character who kept kicking me in the shins was Bruno. I found it impossible to believe that the nine-year-old son of a high-ranking Nazi would be so totally naive about Jews, Hitler, and almost everything else going on in the world around him. Putting that aside, Bruno was a spoiled, petty little brat who-- on rare occasions-- showed a glimmer of humanity, but when push came to shove, he did and said anything in his power to save his own neck. His air of entitlement made him impossible for me to like. (In fact the only character in the book that truly came to life for me was Pavel, the prisoner forced to peel potatoes and wait on the family at table.)

The ending of the book is indeed powerful. Since I normally try my best not to give plot details away, I won't say anything about it here. I'll only mention my own reaction:

You reap what you sow.

Although I did have problems with The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, I am glad that I read the book. I have a feeling that, in this particular case, Boyne's novel would've worked better if I had been a tween or a teenager with less baggage and fewer firmly held beliefs.


  1. It definitely requires a suspension of disbelief. I'm sorry you didn't enjoy it more, but I can see your points!

  2. This book was a DNF for me for most of the same reasons as you describe. Perhaps I'm biased (the author is Australian) but I think Morris Gleitzman's ONCE and THEN are better book for kids about the Holocaust

  3. I haven't read the book and from what you and Bernadette have said I won't bother.

    I am finding it increasing difficult to "willingly suspend my disbelief" with strange plots and unlikely characters. Any nine year old boy like Bruno would have been subject to Nazi propaganda for his entire life making a friendship with Shmuel rather unlikely.

    I have a review coming up some time on Euro Crime that refers to constructing a believable reality in wartime novels.

  4. It really is hard to suspend disbelief if the rest of the plot doesn't keep one interested and, as you say, the reader keeps getting "kicked out of" the narrative. Like you, I can suspend my disbelief when I get caught up, but if there's something too jarring - no.

  5. I have this book at the top of my read-a-thon list this weekend. I am so glad that you warned me to suspend my disbelief, as I believe now I will start reading it with appropriate expectations.

  6. I liked this book a lot more than you did. Sorry Bruno didn't work for you.

  7. A fine, balanced review, Cathy, much more so than mine. Bruno bothered me from the very beginning, and I gave him two very strong thumbs down.

  8. Sorry the book wasn't what you were expecting. At least you got all the way through it. I probably would have quit.

  9. I m glad I read your review before I read this book and I'm not sure I will read it now. I know from your description that Bruno would seriously tick me off. I agree with you about suspending belief when reading some books, I can do that too. But there's a limit and Bruno's is certainly it. I don't see how he couldn't know a think about Jews. Plus the spoiled selfish thing drives me nuts anyway!

    Thanks for a great review and I'm glad you're happy you read the book despite the problems you had with it.

  10. Thanks for the honest review ... it made me want to try this book for myself now! : )

  11. I finally put this one on my list, but with a question mark next to it. All the reviews I read were so positive, but I wasn't sure it would appeal to me. After reading your review I'm thinking it probably wouldn't.

  12. I have always found a surprising number of people are naive about all sorts of things.
    However, kids in primary school in Nazi Germany were taught about "the perils" of Jews. To Suggest a nine year old would not know about the existence of Jews is absurd. To have him discover a Jewish child was not the monster he had been taught would have been more realistic plot structure.
    But there were next to no Jewish Children in Auschwitz anyway. Apart for the few selected by Mengele for experiments almost all were immediately gassed.

  13. I enjoyed this one more than you did, but it did think Bruno was a little too naive.

  14. I've been wanting to read this book since I saw the movie. If they're anything alike, I totally see what you're saying. I still think it's an interesting story, though, but I agree. I have a 9-year-old and she's much more observant than you'd think.

    Would it be okay to link to your review on War Through the Generations?

    Diary of an Eccentric

  15. Meghan-- As I said in my review, I normally don't have a problem suspending my disbelief, but there were just too many things that prevented me from doing so this time. (And I didn't list them all.)

    Bernadette-- I'll have to see if I can get my hands on those books you mention. Thanks!

    Uriah-- I'll be on the lookout for your review!

    Margot K-- The plot kept me interested, which is why I did finish the book. I just kept getting kicked in the shins too many times!

    Molly-- The less you know about the Holocaust, the better!

    Kathy-- It was a combination of Bruno and knowing too much about the Nazis, I think.

    Charlie-- I didn't like Bruno from the first page myself!

    Margot JR-- If I hadn't finished it I wouldn't know how true "You reap what you sow" is. :)

    Amy-- Anyone with such a strong sense of entitlement chaps my hide.

    Jenners-- Good luck!

    Stacy-- To each his own, that's for sure. I know there are many book bloggers who don't believe in posting negative reviews, but how are we supposed to make informed decisions on the books we read if we don't have both sides of the story?

    Al-- The fact that most children were immediately gassed in Auschwitz is something I decided not to mention in my review. It was one of the many things that through me out of the story. Thanks for stopping by!

    Melissa-- I'm glad you were able to enjoy it more than I.

    Anna-- It is an interesting story, and I did keep reading to the end. I'm glad I did (in a perverse sort of way).

  16. Sorry to hear you didn't like it very much! I liked it better...but I do agree with what you said. One thing that helped me think that Bruno could have been oblivious to what the camp really was was that I have read several accounts where people living near the camps never knew what really happened there and that Hitler spread lies about what the camps were really like. So that helped a bit..but still agree that it's far fetched.

  17. Kris-- I didn't have much of a quibble about knowing what the camp was all about. I had a quibble about his apparent ignorance of Jews. He would've known.

  18. Cathy - oh yeah..that's a good point. No matter his age, he should have known.

  19. Kris-- Exactly. The son of a high-ranking Nazi would've been indoctrinated at a very early age. Hitler Youth and all that.


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