The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, John Boyne


I’ve fallen quite behind on my reviews, fellow Readers… my apologies!

So. About a week ago I read The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, by John Boyne. If you haven’t read the book (or seen the movie), it’s about a little German boy named Bruno who moves with his family when his dad gets put in charge of a concentration camp heavily implied to be Auschwitz. Bruno is sad and lonely, but he befriends Shmuel, a Jewish boy in the camp.

This book is… odd. I kind of like the central concept: exploring the almost-incomprehensible horrors of the Holocaust through the innocent and naive eyes of a child. There are certainly moments when the text’s lack of depiction hits you right in the gut,whether it’s through Bruno’s inability to understand what he is witnessing or a hint at something horrible before a metaphorical fade to black. But at the same time, by not fully engaging with the material, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas doesn’t really have anything to say. The core message seemed to be… the Holocaust was bad? I guess? Which is something most of us can agree on, with or without reading this book.

My biggest qualm with the book is that Bruno is never given the chance to grow or learn at all. I kept waiting for his friendship with Shmuel to help Bruno begin to understand the scope of what was happening, but somehow Shmuel is nearly as in the dark as Bruno. Instead of Shmuel helping Bruno to see the system of violence and oppression he was unintentionally a part of, we get Bruno complaining and telling Shmuel he’s actually jealous (of the little boy who is in fucking Auschwitz), because there are so many kids for Shmuel to play with. It was amusing at first, a great depiction of how privelege blinds you to itself, but Bruno is never given the chance to grow out of it.

I kept thinking about what sort of man Bruno would grow up to be, and how he would be shaped by these expereinces once he finally got old enough to understand them… but (SPOILER ALERT), Bruno doesn’t grow up. Instead, Bruno sneaks into the camp to help Shmuel look for his “suddenly missing” father, and both boys wind up unknowingly marching into the gas chambers. It’s a tragic and overblown ending, but even in their last moments, the boys are not given the chance to understand. Their deaths feel cheap, without resolution. It’s a very intentional tug on the heartstrings, but what happened in the Holocaust was tragic enough without such melodrama. Are we meant to be more touched because a German boy died too?

I was interested at the start of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, and the book certainly had it’s effective moments, but when I finished it, I felt kind of gross.


Books read: 10


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