David Flickling Books, Trade Paper, 2008
Reading Level: Young Adult
"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.