It’s one of the most disturbing books for children I’ve ever read.
Bruno is a nine-year-old boy living in a large home with his parents and older sister in a well-to-do section of Berlin, with the grandparents living next door. In many ways, the family seems like a normal family. Bruno loves sliding down the banister from the top to the bottom of the house. He considers his sister a “hopeless case” (what nine-year-old boy doesn’t consider his older sister a hopeless case?). his house is so large that he keeps finding new things to explore. He has good friends at school.
All seems familiar, except this is 1942. His father wears an impressive uniform and seems to be an influential person. Even some well-known person, whom Bruno calls “The Fury,” has taken an interest in his father. And the family is moving to a new home, because his father has taken an important job, a job Bruno’s heard his parents arguing about.
The family moves, and Bruno’s new house is much smaller than his house in Berlin. If he stands on his tiptoes, he can see out of a room in his home to wear people are milling about. They all wear striped pajamas. Bruno understands the name of this new home to be “Out-With.”
And we know, if Bruno doesn’t, that his father is the new commandant of the Auschwitz concentration camp. We know who “The Fury is,” and why the people at Out-With all wear striped pajamas.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas was published in 2008 by Irish writer John Boyne. The book, published in a 10thanniversary paperback edition, won two Irish book awards, was shortlisted for the British Book Award, reached No. 1 on The New York Timesbestsellers list, and was turned into a movie. It’s a difficult book to put down and a difficult book to read; we experience an almost helpless feeling as we watch Bruno in his innocence, desperate to find a friend, discover the reality of Out-With, a reality he never fully comprehends. Boyne effectively uses the gap between the reader’s knowledge and the boy’s ignorance to create first a sense of uneasiness and then a growing sense of horror.
Boyne has written 11 novels for adults and five for children, including The Heart’s Invisible Furies, A Ladder to the Sky, The House of Special Purpose, The Boy at the Top of the Mountain, The Absolutist, This House is Haunted, A History of Loneliness, Next of Kin, Crippen, The Thief of Time, Mutiny, Beneath the Earth, Noah Barleywater Runs Away, The Dare, The Congress of Rough Riders, The Brocketts Get a Dog, The Second Child, Stay Where You Are and Then Leave, and Cyril Avery. He lives in Dublin.
At some point, we know where The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is headed; the ending seems inevitable even as we resist the inevitability. It’s a story that holds us in fascination and horror. I can’t say I would feel comfortable with recommending that children read this book, but then I didn’t feel comfortable reading this book. But comfort isn’t the point.
Top photograph: The commandant’s house at Auschwitz.