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'The Boy in the Striped Pajamas'

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[April 11, 2007]  "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas," by John Boyne, David Fickling Books, 2006, 215 pages, ages 12 and up

Review by
Louella Moreland

In the past few years, the number of juvenile fiction and nonfiction books with Holocaust history has increased. Perhaps the opening of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., has been responsible for the awareness of this hitherto neglected era for children's literature. Perhaps the horror of that time is not as fresh in people's memories, so it becomes easier to talk about the events. Perhaps we need to remember so that history never repeats that dark period of inhumanity. Or perhaps, we need to remember also that there were children whose lives were changed or ended forever due to men and women who lost sight of humanity through fear and power.

Whatever the reason for the increase in this genre of literature, it is both compelling and heartbreaking. John Boyne's novel, "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas," is one of the finest examples I have read. I must warn readers that the ending is not a happy one, but the journey to it reconfirms that children can have a much clearer insight into the world than adults. Children see less gray area in relationships and become confused when their ideas of good and evil collide.

The story is told through the eyes of a 9-year-old German boy, Bruno. Bruno is transported from his very "normal" life in Berlin into a strange existence in the countryside when his important father is asked by his employer "to go somewhere else because there's a special job that needs doing there." Neither his mother or sister is very happy about the move either, but his father, as a soldier, has no say in the matter.

Mr. Boyne moves the reader to feel the desolation that comes over Bruno as he is removed from friends, home, grandparents and school to a monotonous life in uncomfortable surroundings. Life is dull with only his older sister, the Hopeless Case, for company. Soldiers are coming and going all the time, one of whom Bruno dislikes and the servants fear.

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In search of an adventure, Bruno goes exploring one day, walking along the tall, wired fence that extends around a camp he can see from his bedroom window. Everyone in the camp wears striped pajamas and a striped cloth cap on their heads. Soldiers and father go to the camp each day, but Bruno is not allowed. During Bruno's exploration he meets another boy sitting alone in the dirt on the other side of the fence. The boys become friends, meeting at the fence in the woods as often as they can.

Throughout the book, Bruno remains an innocent to the atrocities that occur at the camp. It may seem inconceivable to us in 2007, but a young child of 9 may well have been sheltered from the brutality of concentration camps in Germany. As readers, we clue in quickly to words and phrases Boyne uses to make us have much more understanding of the situation than Bruno. Through our knowledge of history, "The Fury" is known as der Fuhrer and "Out-With" becomes the dreaded Auschwitz. As readers, we understand the pajamas, the marches, the hunger, when Bruno does not. In our time, we can comprehend how a little boy can just disappear.

Mr. Boyne takes on a monumental task to immerse readers in the life of this boy -- all the little rules, phrases, emotions and dreams -- and he does it well. We feel Bruno's torment when faced with the possibility that his father is not "good and kind" all the time. We sympathize with Bruno's inability to understand the conditions in which his friend is forced to live.

"The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" is not young child material, even though written from the perspective of a young child. The novel is meant for older youth and adults who want to ponder the personal side of life in a historical era we will never fully comprehend and never accept. This book is a valuable insight for youth studying this time period, as it brings flesh and breath to the people who lived then. Don't miss this haunting story.

This book and others on the Holocaust are available at the Lincoln Public Library. Stop in and let us help you locate one to fit your interest or study needs.

[Text from file received Louella Moreland, youth services librarian, Lincoln Public Library District]

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