Review: The Boy in Striped Pyjamas, John Boyne

This book is stupid.

My Mum is reading this book at the moment for her book group and I was reminded of how much I loathed it and as I sensed my anger rising, I decided to explain my reasoning here.  I realise that I possibly mispoke seven or eight months ago when I described My Best Friend’s Girl as the worst book I ever read(for full review see here). That one is shockingly bad plot-wise and while as part of the romantic/chick lit genre as a whole, it may be responsible for young girls reading it and having strange ideas about relationships, it would be churlish to ascribe any further blame.  The Boy in Striped Pyjamas is the only book I have ever read that left me disgusted.  

To put this in some kind of context – I read this the year after I visited the Holocaust Museum in New York, an experience which I have never forgotten.  At one particular point, I remember watching a slideshow of photographs of disabled children taken shortly before they were all murdered and I was rooted to the spot, feeling completely overwhelmed by that man-made cruelty.  Luckily, a friend saw my frozen face and grabbed me by the elbow and I got going again.  Even so, now and again you see things from that time period that make you want to cry.  Last year, I did a month’s placement in Paris and I remember walking past a nursery school that had a plaque to commemorate the Jewish pupils of that school who had been murdered by the Nazis with the collaboration of the Vichy government.  The eldest pupil from an Ecole Maternelle would only be six years old – the idea of looking at a child and seeing them as vermin to be exterminated makes me feel a bit queasy again.  There are millions of stories of horror that come from the Holocaust.  The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is not one of them.  

Would. Never. Have. Happened.

Basic plot summary: Bruno moves away from nice house for his father’s new job in “Out-With”.  Bored and lonely, he schleps about and eventually finds a camp surrounded by barbed wire with lots of ‘bald people’ and he makes friends with Shmuel, a boy of his own age through the wire.  They hang out for a year, then Shmuel worries because his father has disappeared so Bruno goes through the wire to help.  Shmuel and Bruno both end up in the gas chamber.  The End.

I remember all of the hoop-la about this book.  The way that John Boyne didn’t want it to be classified as a Holocaust novel because he wanted people to be surprised by the plot twists.  This isn’t a novel of plot twists – this is a book written by a man who has done no historical research at all otherwise he would not have bothered to produce a book so wholly without foundation.  I am not against hypothetical scenarios – I am currently reading The Company of the Dead which is about a bunch of people trying to go back in time to stop the Titanic from sinking.  I would one day like to read Fatherland, which is set in a world where Hitler won.  Still, I recognise that there are certain hypothetical scenarios that Just Don’t Work.  And one of them is that a Nazi Kommandant’s son would be able to sit beside the wire fence every day for a year and befriend a Jewish child.  Of course, nobody would notice, his parents would have no questions and no 9-10 year old Nazi child would have any idea of what the purpose of Auschwitz might be.

This book is offensive on every possible level.  I read somewhere that Holocaust literature generally takes three forms – what happened, why it happened, what we can do to stop it from happening again.  The Boy in Striped Pyjamas does not deal with the real facts of the case, so it cannot fall into any of these categories.  I also found the protagonist Bruno utterly ridiculous and the unfortunate Shmuel was not much better.  Perhaps if Boyne had written the boys as five or six year-olds they would have seemed half-way convincing but as it was their naivete irritated me.  It always annoys me when children are written using wrong vocabulary to highlight their innocence – calling the Fuhrer ‘The Fury’ is an excellent example of this, it is absurd for a 9 year old boy growing up in Nazi Germany not to know what the title of his country’s leader is – in his family’s position he would have had to be a Hitler Youth member.  So many Germans argued after the war that they had no idea about the Holocaust, that they had no idea about what was going on and in this book, using Bruno’s character, John Boyne seems to validate their argument, however unintentionally.

Surely the barbed wire would be a give away?

John Boyne seems to confuse being a child with being stupid.  Children are not idiots, they are very good at knowing when they are in a dangerous situation, I do believe that children have a radar at that age that adults forget to use.  To use an example from my own life – I had eight different childminders growing up and looking back, I am fairly certain that #6 was beaten by her husband.  I was four years old when I was in her care, I did not understand what it meant when I came in and found that the TV wasn’t working because her husband had put his foot through it.  As I recall, my reaction was to look very closely at the TV we had at home and tap it very gently with my foot and then decide that #6’s husband must have strong feet.  Equally, I did not understand why #6 had so many black eyes.  But I knew that I did not like her husband and I remember running out of the room screaming once when he was sat in the living room and I knew he was Not In A Good Mood.  If I was being forced to live in a Nazi death camp where people were regularly disappearing and not coming back and oh yes the oven was smoking constantly, I like to think that I would have picked up on what was going on by the age of ten

The Goebbels children shortly before their deaths

Now, I do recall that some friends have read this book and claimed that it was more a fairy story/allegory about What Would Have Happened If … a Nazi Kommandant’s son had somehow been killed in the gas chambers.  You know, to teach the Nazi Kommandant a lesson.  To be frank, the Nazis did not tend to learn lessons that way.  Magda Goebbels murdered six of her children  on the eve of the German surrender rather than let them live in a world without Hitler and she would have got to the other one had he not been elsewhere at the time.  This is a true horror story that happened because of that most evil of ideologies – there is footage of the six adorable little Goebbels children singing about how much they loved their parents.  Yet, in 2005 a plaque to commemorate their ghastly deaths was blocked because of who their father was – a book written from their point of view might actually be quite interesting, particularly the eldest Helga (aged 11) who based upon her post-mortem injuries seems to have fought against her mother.  From those terrible years in Germany and beyond, there are so many tales of horror, tragedy, courage and sacrifice in the real world – John Boyne’s Holocaust For Dummies just seems trite and kitsch and really, really stupid.  The Holocaust is a horrific part of our recent history, I remember bursting into tears when I first heard about Treblinka because I just could not comprehend it.  This book is trying to cutesify the Holocaust – real children died, millions of them, and yet John Boyne briskly ignores them to try to pluck my heartstrings and get me to care about this imaginary Nazi child.  No.  No.  No.  Weep for the Holcaust, weep for the Goebbels children, weep for Anne Frank, do not waste your time weeping for Bruno.

anne frank
Anne Frank

It is inappropriate, deeply and truly inappropriate to write a fairy story about Auschwitz.  If John Boyne was trying to present a parable about not setting up a death camp to kill people, he should not have tried to set it in the real world.  We are too close to this event and we should always remain too close to it to think that this kind of patronising guff is acceptable.  Rabbi Benjamin Blech criticised the book for making it seem that Nazi death camps were not so bad, sanitising the world that Shmuel was living in and allowing him to pursue a friendship apparently unaware of the constant threat of death.  Real children died.  John Boyne has no right to take that tragedy to score cheap dramatic points.

hitler stole
This one was way better.

I understand that not all children are ready for The Diary of Anne Frank, which I read aged nine.  I recently took part in a Brownie Pack Holiday and was delighted to see that a Brownie had taken that for her bedtime reading, but I know that it’s heavy going in places.  Still, there are other options, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit and its sequels is a very vivid account of being a Jewish refugee in the 1930s/40s, written by Judith Kerr (also author of the Mog books).  A friend told me that Kerr wrote it after her son commented that for her, watching The Sound of Music must be like watching a film about her early life – she wanted people to know what being a refugee was really like.  Children should be educated about the Holocaust.  They must be educated about it, but we are not a point where we can tell parables about genocide as if it is something that no longer happens.   We fail children, we fail ourselves but most importantly we fail the victims of these atrocities in denying them their voices and listening instead to this trite tale, free from reality and free of any true meaning.

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The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne
Published by David Fickling Books on September 12th 2006
Pages: 224
ISBN: 0385751060

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12 thoughts on “Review: The Boy in Striped Pyjamas, John Boyne

  1. Thank you. Why? For expressing what I feel about this book.
    When I was 11 years old I had an English teacher who suggested to me one day that I read The Diary of Anne Frank – for reasons I don't quite know, she did so to me alone in the class, how she reasoned it would be a book I should read I still don't understand (I am now 60!)
    Since then I have read many books and seen many TV documentaries about the Holocaust, and when I was a mature student at university studying philosophy did an extended essay on the moral issues of the Holocaust being used in fictional books and dramas. In my reading for this essay I came across a children's picture book attempting to explain the Holocaust – Let the Celebrations Begin! by Margaret Wild and Julie Vivas which I feel about as I do Boyne's.
    My conclusion of my essay was that writing about the Holocaust in works of fiction should be for survivors or done with great care and sympathetically, it was a terrible event that should never, never be trivialised.
    So once again, well done for posing a negative review!

  2. Why thank you to you too – it's always lovely to get such passionate feedback. When I visited the Holocaust Museum in New York, I was with my school. All of us received a card with the name of a Jewish person who entered a concentration camp. At the end of the Museum, once we had seen all of the exhibits, we were able to check and see whether our 'person' had survived. Mine was a fifteen year-old French girl called Suzanne. She did not survive. I do not think of her often but when I do, it makes me sad because she was real. I also remember Anna's attempts to understand the Holocaust in When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, based on the author's real life experiences. I understand that John Boyne's book has brought understanding about the Holocaust to children on an accessible level, I have even seen it read by some reluctant readers. Still, there are better books out there and for me, The Boy in Striped Pyjamas is offensive and, as you say, trivialises one of the worst atrocities in human history.

  3. Thanks for replying. I have visited Dachau and the Holocaust memorial in Paris, both of which moved me in their own way. How such an event can be trivialised is beyond me. In what must seem a strange way I feel an element of guilt about it even though I was born nearly 20 years after the event, I feel the allies in the Second World War could have done more to curtail the slaughter (such as bombing the railway tracks to the concentration camps as they were asked to by some Jewish leaders.)

  4. I know, my own godmother is German and was born long after the end of WW2 but I know that she has a strong sense of survivor guilt. I think that people just failed to recognise the scale of the genocide – if it had not really happened, it would be completely unbelievable. I don't think that Boyne intended to trivialise the horror though, he wanted to tell a 'new' type of Holocaust story but it just … doesn't work. I think it would be really interesting to consider the Goebbels children, or even The Book Thief provides an intriguing perspective but The Boy in Striped Pyjamas is complete drivel.

  5. Have been meaning to thank you for attaching that, it was a really interesting read. I do agree with you that documenting the Holocaust is always very sensitive and needs to be done with far greater tact that John Boyne showed in this book.

  6. Such a great review, exactly what I thought – many thanks. This and Room by Emma Donaghue occupy a similar place, I think – a “cute-sified” view of tragedy. Very hard to discuss with people who get something from these books, and not signing up to them seems to out you as a miserable grump.

    That both of these books are ultimately commodities makes me very uncomfortable.

    1. Hi – thanks for commenting. I have less of an issue with Room as I think it is about something else – the mother/child bond and also how the mother seeks to protect her child. I have no interest at all in watching the film though as I can’t see how it would be able to st into Jack’s skin in the same way. Room hides Jack and the reader’s eyes from the violence and a film would not be able to get away with this nor would they be able to depict it appropriately. Thank you for raising this point – literature does have the power to shine a light on difficult issues but it does raise the point of when this is exploitative and, as you say, when the suffering becomes a commodity. I felt that very much with the painful lives memoirs which were all the rage a few years ago and agree that is an issue here.

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