This month my book club discussed The Boy In the Striped Pajamas by Irish author John Boyne.
I was quite stunned by this book, a book meant for children but one that carries very adult themes. I’ve read other books about the Holocaust but never one like this.
Bruno is a 9 year old boy, the son of a Nazi commandant living in Berlin in 1942. After the “Fury” comes to dinner, his dad takes an ‘important’ job and the family has to move far away to a smaller home outside “Out-with”. Bruno is really unhappy about this because there is no one to play with and nothing to do at the new house. He is lonely and bored until one day he looks out his bedroom window and sees dozens of men and children, oddly all wearing striped pajamas. The curious Bruno decides to do some exploring to find out what those people are doing there.
I worried about this innocent boy going too far with his exploring, and then it occurred to me that I was worrying more about the child of a Nazi than I was about all the people in the book wearing the pajamas. They were all innocent, of course. Did I believe that boy’s life was more important than the others? I really had to question myself about why I was so concerned for him. Perhaps because I already knew the fate of the others- I knew they were doomed. That knowledge allowed me to put those feelings aside and put all my worrying into Bruno.
It was an odd experience reading The Boy in the Striped Pajamas because the reader knows more about what’s going on than the sheltered young Bruno, and can understand what’s happening while he cannot. And, because you’re reading about the Holocaust, you know it can’t end well, but the ending of this book was like a punch in the face. I’m not kidding- I never saw it coming. I have no desire to spoil it for you here so I won’t comment further- just know it’s shocking. I’m glad I didn’t know more about the book before I picked it up because I like being surprised like that.
Parts of this book were a little hard to swallow (a child of a Nazi commandant would be that clueless?) but I got past that and didn’t let it spoil the book for me. Kids are self absorbed, so perhaps he really wouldn’t have known anything about what was going on.
My 12 year old read the book too but I had to explain the ending to her as she hasn’t learned very much about the Holocaust or concentration camps yet. She was quite horrified (by what I told her, not by the book) and asked a lot of questions. I’d recommend the book for mature 12 years olds, on up. It opened the door to a good introductory conversation on the topic between my daughter and me.
For our book club meeting we watched the movie. For the most part it was true to the book, however the ending was a bit different. In the book, the parents are left wondering what happened and eventually figure it out. In the movie, they know immediately. I thought the movie was good but (as usual) I preferred the book.
You can find book club discussion questions for The Boy in the Striped Pajamas at ReadingGroupGuides.com.
The Boy In the Striped Pajamas is different, well written, heartbreaking, and tender. And shocking.
Very highly recommended.