Sunday, September 27, 2009

Review: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, John Boyne


David Flickling Books, Trade Paper, 2008
ISBN 978-0385751896
240 pages


Reading Level: Young Adult


First Sentence:

"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 astonished when his family leaves their elegant five-story mansion in Berlin and moves far away to a much smaller home literally in the middle of nowhere. It is all because of Father’s new job: just the week before, the Fury (and the pretty blonde lady named Eva) had dinner at the mansion, where the Fury promoted Father to Commandant of Out-With.

“Fury,” for the uninformed, means the Fuhrer, and “Out-With” means Auschwitz. Puns that I did not find the least bit funny, but Bruno (Boyne) uses them throughout the book. “Fuhrer,” “Auschwitz,” and “Holocaust” are never mentioned; Hitler is used once when Father and Bruno, standing side-by-side, perform a perfect heel thumping “Heil” salute.

In a praise blurb, New York magazine says, “A book that tells a very bad story, gently.” Gently is an understatement; without prior knowledge of Auschwitz, the other concentration camps, the horror, and the German psychopaths who ran them, the reader will learn nothing of the Holocaust in this book.

When Bruno eventually finds the boy in the striped pajamas while exploring along the camp fence (and on page 106 of 216), he is delighted. Shmuel is also nine and they share the same birth date, but there the sameness ends; Bruno is on one side of the fence, Shmuel on the other.

It is because of the fence that Bruno asks to crawl under it so they can play.
“I don’t know why you’re so anxious to come across here anyway,” said Shmuel. “It’s not very nice.”

“You haven’t tried living in my house,” said Bruno. “For one thing, it doesn’t have five floors, only three. How can anyone live in so small a space as that?” He’d forgotten Shmuel’s story about the eleven people all living in the same room together before they had come to Out-With . . .”

It is dialog like this, which permeates the book, that made me intensely dislike Bruno, the protagonist. Boyne, in the Author’s Note, puts it this way: “I believed that the only respectful way for me to deal with this subject [the Holocaust] was through the eyes of a child, and particularly through the eyes of a rather naïve child who couldn’t possibly understand the terrible things that were taking place around him.”

If the protagonist cannot possibly understand these terrible things, then why write the book at all?

So who is the audience for this book? That is another tough question. Amazon and B&N classify it as Young Adult, and the book cover concurs with "teens." Also on the cover is a blurb by the publisher: “If you start this book, you will go on a journey with a nine-year-old boy named Bruno. (Though this isn’t a book for nine-year-olds.)" Boyne, in an interview with the publisher, muddies the water even further: “I think of it as a book. I don’t think of it as a children’s book or an adult’s book. I’m not entirely sure I know what the difference is between a children’s book and an adults’ book.”

I do not take negative reviews lightly, and they are never a snap decision. I gave this book a lot of thought over several days, a lot of time writing and rewriting and, in the final analysis, I recommend it to no one: it is a book about a self-possessed boy and a disgrace to the Holocaust.

19 comments:

Mary Witzl said...

I began your review with great trepidation, afraid that you were going to like a book that I honestly could not stand. I don't make negative reviews lightly either; I would do ANYthing to praise a book that tackles such a subject. But those puns left me cold (and really, how could they have worked in German? Am I a total nerd for wondering that? Surely Fuhrer and 'fury' will be different in German?) and I loathed the spoiled protagonist and (God help me) almost cheered when he went off to the gas chambers with poor Shmuel (who I found myself desperate to save). And yet, this whole concept could have -- should have -- been done so well! I really like the idea; I appreciate the fact that Bruno wasn't all caring and compassionate from the word go, but did he have to be such a brat?

And yet the reviews were so glowing and the praise was so fulsome! And I'm pretty sure I've read another book by the author that I enjoyed... This book honestly made me think hard about my own manuscript. For the first time, I sincerely appreciated the people who rejected it, who told me what I have to do to make it better. Someone should have done that for this book; it would have made all the difference.

Wandering Coyote said...

Um, well...I've never heard of this book and reading what you and Mary above have written, I'll give it a pass.

Cathy said...

I couldn't stay away from this review even though this is the next book I'll be picking up to read. I'd read nothing but glowing reviews of this book, but after your review and Mary's comment, I think it will be very interesting to see what *I* think of it. I'm looking forward to reading it even more now.

Diane said...

I happened to LOVE the book and the movie. The ending was shocking, in some ways it proved "what goes around, comes around".

Charlie said...

MARY: It appears our thinking was the same on this one. As far as the German equivalents, those are beyond my ken—it might be possible if Bruno had a speech impediment, but that was never mentioned. I used the term self-possessed, but spoiled brat fits the bill.

At least the book was fruitful for you regarding your own writing.

WC: Pass on it and read The Hunger Games instead—it is non-stop YA science fiction, with more fantasy than science.

CATHY: We'll be looking forward to what *you* think of it.

DIANE: You are far from alone, liking both the book and movie. As a matter of fact, I'm thinking that the movie might be interesting.

I appreciate your comment: if everyone agreed with me, this would be one boring comment thread.

Pat said...

I remember only too well - as a young girl - seeing those horrific newsreels of the holcaust victims often wearing striped pyjamas.
This is one book - mainly because of the treatment - that I'm not drawn to.

St Jude said...

I have never read this book or indeed heard of it. It appears a shame that what could have been a very interesting and sensitive way of introducing the subject to young people has missed the mark. Are young people being over protected from reality? Any way you look at it, if you write about the holocost it wasn't nice, you can't wrap it up in a nice rosy package, it was horrific. To negate that sense of horror is to negate what happened. There are those out there who deny it did happen!

11pm said...

"A commercial success" is the gist of what I read in your review. Sensationalism and faux realism. That's Random House for ya...focusing on their women readers.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

I have not seen the film nor read the book, and to be honest, knew very little about the treatment of the subject matter. I just assumed it would be worthy, so it's good to know to tread cautiously.

Bruno does sound like a spoiled little wankjacket, doesn't he?

St Jude said...

11pm - forgive me if I am wrong sweetie, but have I misunderstood your comment. Are you attempting to say that women are only interested in shallow, unrealistic reading material? I note from your list of interests you state 'romance novels'this is not a genre to which I myself am drawn. Clearly we are both exceptions to the 'rule'!!

Meg said...

Well, that's disappointing. I wonder why he would treat it so delicately, almost disrespectfully, it sounds like? When I was nine I read the Diary of Anne Frank and The Hiding Place. In an effort for children to grow up with positive influences people have only succeeded in sheltering them from truth, it seems.

Charlie said...

PAT: Striped pajamas was a good title, but we all know they were concentration camp uniforms.

I agree that you should pass on this one.

ST JUDE: I think that, at the time, children were over-protected from reality. But today? With TV, movies, violent video games, and the internet, I suspect there are plenty of nine-year-olds who know more about reality than I did at nineteen.

The reality of the Holocaust, however, will not be found anywhere in this book.

11PM & ST JUDE: No comment.

BARBARA: Wankjacket. That's a new one on me. I think I like it.

MEG: Children certainly should grow up with positive influences, but sometime as they are maturing they also need to know that evil did, and does, exist. Otherwise, there is no comparison to goodness.

kara said...

they made a movie out of this i think. and knowing my lazy self, i'll prolly see that instead. for shame, i know.

i read the capote book you recommended though, so that wins me brownie points!

Peter said...

Hi, Charlie! Talk about a very scathing review! I recall the first time I saw "Life Is Beautiful" with a close friend, who just can't stand how the lead seem to make the situation funny just for his son's sake. Could it be that the author of this novel had this in mind?

Although, I have to agree with you that, just because this is a YA novel, the terrible things that happened during that period shouldn't be sugarcoated. We need to tell these things as they are, as they happened.

You know that expression "Lest we forget"? How can young people forget the horrors of WWII (or any atrocity for that matter) if they don't even know the details? If you don't no anything, then there's nothing to forget. Now that, I think, is very dangerous.

Peter said...

Oops, sorry. I just saw a lot of typos in the comment above.

koonsmother said...

Charlie, forgive me if I engage here...

11PM: As a woman reader of E. L. Doctorow and John Irving, both currently published by Random House, and William Faulkner who once was, I'd like to know just what this means:
"Sensationalism and faux realism. That's Random House for ya...focusing on their women readers."

Charlie said...

KARA: Aren't you a bit mature for the brownies? You should be a girl scout by now.

And I wish you'd told me how you liked the Capote stories.

PETER: "Life is Beautiful" was the opposite of this book. Guido, the father, made his son laugh because (1) they were prisoners in a concentration camp, (2) the boy was young and lived the horror, and (3) Guido knew they were going to die. None of these apply to Bruno.

You're right on in your other two paragraphs. All of the atrocities of the twentieth century cannot be remembered if they aren't known in the first place.

KM: You're more than welcome to engage—this is an open thread.

Shellie (Layers of Thought) said...

Excellent review Charlie!
I will definitely give this one a miss.
I almost think that anything really poignant regarding the Holocaust is generally written by the survivors.

Charlie said...

SHELLIE: Thanks for the compliment—it was a difficult one to write—and I totally agree with your comment.