Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne

So, I finally remembered that I wanted to read this "sosososososo amazing!" (direct quote) book when I saw it in a bookstore this weekend and so I picked it up and promptly headed to the check out. I was exhausted when I sat down to read some of it that same night but I ended up making my way through a good 50 pages (out of 216) before turning in for the night. It's quite a fast read, this one is.

** someone in the comment's section asked for a spoiler warning, so let's do that! **

Nine-year-old Bruno comes home from school to his family's maid, Maria, packing all his stuff up from his room (even the stuff hidden at the back of the closet that no one's supposed to see). He finds out from his mother that they're moving far, far away from his five-story house and home in Berlin, to a place he calls "Out-with". (Use your Holocaust knowledge to figure out what the place is really called.) This because his father, after dinner with "the Fury", starts being addressed to as Commandant.


Despite being a prominent Nazi's son, Bruno is very naïve. Just outside his new home is a fence and he sees all these people--grandfathers, fathers, sons--in striped pajamas and wonders if he can play with the children because he's lonely after leaving his three best friends in Berlin. He doesn't seem to know that they're Jews, therefore "subhuman". He doesn't know he's supposed to hate them. He doesn't even know what "Heil Hitler" means--he thinks it's just another form of saying hello.

A penchant for exploration leads him to an isolated spot along the fence away from his--the Commandant's--house, where there's a dot that becomes a speck that becomes a blob that becomes a figure that becomes a boy is found. His name is Shmuel.

Looks like Bruno's just found his new friend.

I read some of the other (many) reviews of this book on Amazon and GoodReads and the like, and while I'll agree there are quite a number of historical inaccuracies in this text and that's usually enough reason to turn me into a shrieking fiend, I gotta say I actually really liked this book.

And the historical inaccuracies aren't the only flaws. "Out-with" and "the Fury" for example are English-language wordplays when it's stated time and again within the narrative that they're all speaking is German. I mean, how does that work? Anyway, I also saw a lot of criticism about the narrative being third person limited focusing on Bruno, with many repetitive segments and just a childish feel, which is appropriate given the narrator is nine. I quite liked this device because I loved how the author mastered the voice of a nine-year-old, but I didn't know why it slipped into omniscient and fluctuated from that to limited at random.

I guess the big question here is: Would it be possible for a Commandant's son to not be cognizant of the Nazi ideals? Personally, I'm willing to suspend my belief enough to entertain the notion. It seemed like Bruno's father was too busy with his career, his mom was way too drunk to deal with the situation half of the time (ahh, a conscience), and his sister was a little intense. Every time he brought it up, his father dismissed his questions, his mother was deadweight, and his sister mocked him. How's a boy to learn?

And I acknowledge that my knowledge on the Holocaust is pretty limited. I acknowledge this book has its flaws. But it was an interesting story that started out innocent and ordinary enough and ended with a shocker that didn't leave off a cliffhanger but rather made the book worth it.

Okay, and confession: I read the reviews midway through the book, actually, because I was dying to know what other people had thought and after that I was predisposed to not liking it because it seemed heavy-handed on the fiction rather than the historical.

But I liked it nevertheless and wouldn't hesitate to anyone, especially those who LOVE big twist endings.

Also: It sucked reading about this absolutely naïve boy who didn't need to get dragged into this crap but who did nevertheless because of his circumstances. And it sucked even more to see him interacting with Shmuel, independently reaching the conclusion that they were basically the same, and then running to his family and finding out--through fragments--that he was supposed to hate Shmuel because he is a Jew. One passage went something like this (paraphrasing because the book isn't near me):

"We hate them," Gretel said. "They're Jews."
"And what are we?"
"We're-- we're-- " (Gretel struggles). "We're the opposite."
"So they're the Jews and they live on that side of the fence and we live here because we're Opposites."

(Really paraphrased but that's the main idea of the dialogue."

Anyway: B.

(Sorry for the rushed review but I had to review it now and I have to go watch some inappropriate cartoon with my brother now.)

David Fickling Books | 216 pages | September 12th, 2006 | GoodReads


Anonymous said...

Do you think maybe this review should have a spoiler alert? I know the subject matter is a little obvious, but the book blurb goes through a lot of trouble keeping the topic obstructed...

Jen said...

Someone in my class did a book report and I have to say this was way more informative!

Amee said...

Great review. My grandmother actually gave me this one a couple months ago. I'll have to read it soon! I like to think I already know the big twist. I don't really but I like guessing. :P

ellie_enchanted said...

I haven't read the book, but I've heard it's excellent.
It's interesting that you posted the review today, because it's the Holocaust Remembrance Day. Was that intentional?

bermudaonion said...

I bought this a few weeks ago after my mother-in-law raved over the movie. I hope to read it soon.

Beth Kephart said...

as usual, reading your commentary is nearly as good as reading the book.

Okie said...

I definitely want to read this, though I suspect I'll need to surround it with lighter fare

Anonymous said...

I just read this book a few weeks ago, and reviewed it last week, I agree with you for the most part. Despite some of the inaccuracies, I did really like the book. Great review!

Bookgeek said...

Sorry, but I really, really did not like the book. I'm one of those who got upset with the inaccuracies. I do admit(full disclosure) that I have family who died in the camps (and some who escaped) and have read and heard much about the times. But the boy was just too naive even for a 9 year old, and he learned nothing while there, and there was so little real information, and the voice fluctuated. And that ending! So, if you want to read about that time period, read the Book Thief, which is incredible. Read Number the Stars. Or The Devil's Arithmetic. Far, far better.

Anonymous said...

i read this book. it was good. certainly gave the impression of the Holocaust that it was sad.

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