Bruno returns to his home in Berlin one day to find the maid packing up all of his clothes. After a brief query, he finds out that his family is relocating because of his father’s promotion in the military. Living in Poland, in a desolate house in a desolate land, Bruno wanders aimlessly around the area, until he meets a young boy sitting on the other side of a barbed wire fence, wearing striped pajamas just like the rest of the people on that side of the fence. Soon Bruno comes to realize that his world isn’t so neatly black and white as he had hoped.
The book takes on a unique perspective of the Holocaust and Auschwitz. Bruno’s father is the Commandant, the lead figure in the brutality that was carried out at the largest and most notorious concentration camp during World War 2. I think Boyne did a good job of telling the story through Bruno’s naive 9-year-old eyes. Young and confused, Bruno doesn’t understand what is going on around him, even though every one else is fully aware of their situation.
At times, I found Bruno’s naiveté hard to handle. It felt more like pure ignorance and denial than naiveté. He clearly wasn’t sheltered from the situation, given that his bedroom window looks out onto the concentration camp, and the numerous scenes of violence he is witness to with his family present. His father is in the S.S. and the Commandant of Auschwitz. I couldn’t believe that Bruno had no idea of what was going on around him. Especially after a year of chatting with Shmuel about their past lives and current situations, I would have hoped that Bruno would grow up and realize what is going on, and especially how his father is involved. Or at the very least, stop referring to Auschwitz as “Out-With” and the Furor as “The Fury.” The friendship between Bruno and Shmuel also felt a bit stunted, and I think it could have been explored and expanded much more. The book itself felt about 75 pages too short. I would have liked to know more about Shmuel and his story, and I think having alternating voices between the two boys would have been a really effective vehicle to discuss how two young boys can be on such opposite ends of the spectrum of the mass hatred that was the Holocaust.
Although this book is a good introduction to the Holocaust, there is a slight disconnect between its target audience and its narrator. Older teens who know about the Holocaust might not appreciate Bruno’s childlike demeanor, and the younger kids who can relate to Bruno don’t have the background knowledge to appreciate the book’s potential. There are also a lot of historical elements and propaganda that the author seemed to set aside in order to propel his story, but again, I think those omissions can lead to good classroom discussion of what life was really like for children during the Holocaust and how real life actually differed from the book.