The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is an unusual story, one of the most difficult and disturbing a teen will ever read. It is the story of an event seared into the fabric of history. It is a fable told through the voice of a child, but it is not for children, and this is not just any child.
Bruno is nine years old, and he's not happy; his father has a new job and he's leaving his comfortable house, his neighborhood and his three best friends behind. His big sister Gretel is no help, for like older sisters everywhere, she's in a world all her own, though it's obvious she isn't thrilled about the move either. Their servants are tight-lipped and nervous, and Bruno's mother tries to explain that this is not only a promotion for his father, it's his duty.
His father shows some but not much sympathy for Bruno. As befits a military man, he is a strict disciplinarian, and the boy tries his best to honor his father's wishes, even though it sometimes involves saying and doing things he doesn't understand. So Bruno says goodbye to his comfortable life and moves far away from the city. His destination isn't a house in the country though at least not like any he's ever imagined. It's a bleak, forbidding place, and instead of a five-story mansion, he lives in a smaller, less comfortable house. He is surrounded by his father's soldiers, including one particularly menacing lieutenant named Kotler, and there's a cook who also appears to be a doctor, much to Bruno's puzzlement. Strangest of all is the barbed-wire fence outside his bedroom window, and the huddled groups of men and boys beyond. Along that fence he'll meet the boy of the book's title.
If you haven't already guessed, John Boyne's The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is a young adult novel about the Holocaust. By focusing on Bruno's innocent and puzzled view of his father's job, Boyne offers a previously unseen perspective on the everyday Germans who took part in the Nazis' ultimate solution. While written with teens in mind, this is certainly a book worthy of adult readers. Already a bestseller in the U.K. and Australia, the novel is well written, compelling and ultimately shocking. It should be noted, however, that the book has garnered criticism from some who argue that the boy's viewpoint trivializes this tragic era. Bruno is definitely naive by today's standards, but this novel isn't set in 2006—it takes place in 1943, when a sheltered child might well have been unaware of Auschwitz and the fate of the Jews who were sent there. Ultimately, it is up to the individual reader to judge whether Boyne's unique approach to the Holocaust adds to the understanding of this troubling time in human history.
James Neal Webb is a copyright researcher at Vanderbilt University.