Debriefing: Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne

Posted on January 26, 2009. Filed under: Books, Personal Reviews | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , |

It may be early in 2009 to judge, but I feel confident in saying this is one of the best books I have read and expect to read in 2009. It will truly take a lot to bounce this book from the top of my best list. It may even be one of the best books I have ever read. Short and simple, it is phenomenal!

This book is written from the perspective of a 9 year old in war-torn Nazi Germany. Bruno’s family made him move from the ‘safe’, or rather comfortable streets of Berlin to a distant city that could only be reached by train. Once he was in that new place, Bruno learned that his new house was named ‘Out-With”, presumably named because his father, the newly appointed Commandant was replacing a bad Commandant that they said “out with!” to. Bruno doesn’t realize that his German pronunciation is quite off and that he is no longer in Germany but in Poland, and the people he sees beyond the fence are not a small village exactly but they are the prisoners of Auschwitz. Bruno doesn’t understand why the “Fury” is so important and why he has moved his family to this barren land with no children to play with. (The Fury = Führer and is clearly Adolf Hitler).

Bruno’s innocence is resonated throughout this tale and is really a story of hope, admiration, courage, strength and history. This is one of the darkest times in history for all mankind. It is a time of innocent murders and war, this nine year old Bruno is at the heart of the struggle and doesn’t understand what is evolving around him, or why. Bruno’s innocence makes his story deeply sad, but powerful. More powerful than many other historical novels about this era have ever been for me personally.

As the story further unfolds Bruno explores the fence outside of his window and finds a small boy. This boy is his age exactly, his name is Shmuel and they become fast friends. Bruno begins this friendship with complaints about how terrible his life is at ‘out-with’. Bruno is disappointed in his house size as well as the fact that there are no little boys for him to play with, and is jealous that Shmuel gets to live with thousands of other boys and can seemingly play all day. Bruno is also deeply jealous that Shmuel gets to wear striped pajamas and a wool cap, which is much better than Bruno’s clothes. The beginning of their friendship almost plays out as a class issue, and Bruno just doesn’t realize how different they are, but how the same they are. Shmuel begins to open up with Bruno and tries to express how different their lives are and how terrible life is for Shmuel even though Bruno is jealous of the ‘wonderful’ things Shmuel has on his side of the fence. Both boys dislike the soldiers but for different reasons entirely. Shmuel is clearly abused by the soldiers while Bruno simply dislikes how much they frequent his home. It slowly occurs to Bruno, in a very small way that Shmuel’s life is not easy on the other side of the fence, once he sees how the soldiers disrespect Shmuel and his friends.

The story takes us through a friendship that blossoms through a fence between two nine year-old boys who don’t understand why they must live their lives on separate sides of the fence. Bruno dislikes his tutor who focuses solely on history and geography, and is clearly teaching Bruno the Nazi mindset. Additionally, the book frequently references the different arm-bands the boys wear, and Bruno’s decision between wearing the red and black arm-band like his Father and the “Fury” or the arm-band that Shmuel gets to wear with the funny picture on it. Bruno and Shmuel don’t realize the extent that their friendship is forbidden and also do not realize the ways in which their lives are intermingled but very different. Bruno and Shmuel create a bond that is better than any bond Bruno had made before, and they realize that they are truly the same even though the soldiers and the fence tell them otherwise. The boys become close, like brothers almost, and Bruno is eager to help Shmuel find his father who went missing after a ‘march’. Shmuel realizes that no one returned from his father’s march but is desperate to find him. Bruno wants to help his friend, but also selfishly wants to know desperately about the world on the other side of the fence; Bruno needs to know what Shmuel’s village is like with all the people in the striped pajamas before he returns with his family to Berlin.

This story will tear at your heart but make you open your eyes to realize that they are the same, Bruno and Shmuel. It will make you once again think of the sorrow of that era that many innocent people endured throughout Europe, and for what? In the end it may be said that the boys learned about love and life through each other and learned exactly how valuable life is and the difference that having people to share it with really means. Bruno’s family also learned about life and love, from Grandma who detested the Nazis and what they stood for (including her son) to Gretel, Bruno’s sister (who was a hopeless case in Bruno’s eyes) growing from just an innocent teenager to a young girl trained by Nazi tutors and surrounded by Nazi soldiers. It is a magnificent story that you will devour in days, if not hours. This story is different than all others that deal with the sensitive subject of the Holocaust because Bruno, our narrator, is familiar on a personal and social level with the men who are responsible for dispensing this evil, and yet Bruno has absolutely no idea at all about the events that are going on around him – he just does not know. The naivete that Bruno exposes is a true lesson for the era and his friendship with Shmuel is created through this same naivete and leaves us with a precious story. This is a powerful tale that should not be missed!

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2 Responses to “Debriefing: Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne”

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i am doing an exam on the friendship oj shmuel and bruno’s relationship…any tips?

I am currently reading this book in school and your review is amazing and it just helped me with my homework.


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