Book Review: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne

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.

For the FTC:  I bought this book with my hard earned cash.

Book Review: Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay

9780312370848 Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay is a brilliant and beautiful novel about a horrific and under-reported event that took place during WWII, the Vel’d’Hiv’ roundup of more than 13,000 French Jews in Paris by the French police. Told alternately from Sarah’s point of view in 1942 and that of Julia Jarmond, a modern day American journalist researching the event for it’s 60th anniversary, Ms. de Rosnay seamlessly weaves the two stories together.

At 10, “the girl” has heard her parents whispering anxiously about roundups and camps and arrests, but they haven’t told her anything directly. When the French police come in the middle of the night demanding “Open up! Police! Now!”, she does not understand. She sees it is not the Nazis coming for them and believes they will straighten it all out and come home in a few hours. Her 4 year old brother, terrified, climbs into his hiding place in a long cupboard and the girl, thinking she is protecting him, locks him in and pockets the key, promising him she’ll be back soon. The rest of the family is taken away as neighbors watch, some mocking them, a few standing up for them and demanding to know why.

The girl and her family are taken with thousands of others, mostly women and children, to the Velodrome d’Hiver, an indoor cycle track in Paris, as a holding place before boarding buses for concentration camps hours away. They are kept there for days without food, toilet facilities, medical care, or blankets in overcrowded and inhumane conditions before being paraded through town and onto buses- the same town buses they had used to go to school and to the market- and driven away to camps as the Parisians watched. At the camps, first the men are separated from their families. Piece by piece their lives are chipped away. Weeks later, in a gut wrenching scene, the women are brutally and forcibly separated from their children. The adults are taken to Auschwitz and the children, even babies and toddlers, are left to fend for themselves. All this time the girl is consumed with guilt and fear for her brother, who she believes is still locked in the cupboard. She vows to get back to him.

Sarah is called “the girl” in the book until page 132, when she finally begins to feel safe and treated as a person again. I was riveted by Sarah’s chapters, but not as much by Julia’s, the American journalist, although I think interweaving the two was a very effective way to tell this story. We are allowed to see the Parisian’s modern day apathy, their lack of emotion or knowledge of events that took place right in their own city. Julia is stunned to discover a personal connection to the Vel’d’Hiv’ roundup. As she unravels family secrets and her story begins to intersect with Sarah’s, her marriage starts to disintegrate. Told in parallel, I found myself racing through Julia’s parts to get back to Sarah. When halfway through the book Sarah’s chapters abruptly end, I was distressed and frustrated, wanting to get back to her story. What had happened to Sarah? It took the rest of the book to find out.

This book is so compelling and I highly recommend it. I love when historical fiction teaches us something new, and this tragic event in Paris was something I’d never heard about. The ending seems a little too perfect and coincidental, but I loved it, and I’ve heard the movie rights have been optioned. I can’t wait to see this story on the big screen.

Our book club was supposed to discuss the book two weeks ago but something came up for our hostess, so we’ll be discussing it tomorrow. I’ll do a book club wrap-up post here in a few days.

Check out my book club’s Q & A with Tatiana de Rosnay HERE.

Discussion questions for Sarah’s Key can be found HERE.

If you’re interested in this subject you might also like The Boy In the Striped Pajamas, reviewed HERE.