The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

By John Boyne.

Bruno’s dad is someone important, although Bruno isn’t really certain of what he does. It does mean that the family has to leave its nice home in Berlin and go and live outside a camp in Auschwitz where everyone wears striped pyjamas.

Having little else to do, Bruno goes exploring and soon meets a boy called Shmuel, who lives on the other side of the wire. The pair are precisely the same age, and they become friends, although the wire almost always interposes. At one point, Shmuel turns up at Bruno’s house, and gets into trouble for allegedly stealing food when Bruno disowns any familiarity with him. In spite of the consequences at the hands of Lieutenant Kotler, Shmuel resumes his accustomed place beside the wire.

Eventually, they make arrangements for Bruno to enter the camp where he discovers not only how wretched their lives are, but also their fate, although Bruno dies in blissful ignorance.

I think the story strains credulity just a little too far, an observation made in other reviews. Bruno seems stunningly stupid and ignorant even for a nine-year-old whose entire life would’ve been spent under Hitler’s reign. It’s a touching enough story about the son of the man in charge of Auschwitz making friends with a Jewish boy and dying with him in tragic innocence in the gas chambers. It’s not, so I’ve read, meant to be faithfully accurate or among other things, Bruno would’ve been electrocuted when he wriggled under the wire. But like other readers young and old alike, I felt the protagonist needed to display a little insight, or there needed to be some insight from somewhere.

Sci-fi, fantasy, or faerie tale. Same story, but done as one of these with a more aware Bruno and the same tragic ending. Thus there would be no need to distort the truth.

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is another of the books which I considered as a possible replacement for To Kill a Mockingbird for the higher-level English B students next year. From a practical perspective, it doesn’t fit with the rest of the course (also a problem with To Kill a Mockingbird) and even our pupils may find Bruno somewhat irritating.