The Boy in the Striped Pajamas begins with Bruno, a young boy living in Berlin, coming home to find his family’s maid is packing everything from his room. Bruno thinks he is being punished and sent away, but soon discovers that he isn’t the only one – they are all going: his Father, his Mother, and his sister Gretel, who he isn’t very fond of and continually refers to as a “Hopeless Case.”
They leave their five-story home on a nice street in Berlin and arrive at a gloomy house that seems to be completely isolated. Bruno is very unimpressed with the move, as any young boy would be. He resents having to leave behind his “three best friends for life” and the big house with five floors and a bannister that he can slide all the way down.
While I was initially unsure of whether Bruno was going to be the German or the Jewish boy in this novel (I knew enough about the story to know that he was one or the other), it quickly becomes apparent that Bruno is German, and his father is someone quite high up in the military. The “Fury”, as Bruno calls him, has very high hopes for Bruno’s father, and thus the family are moved to a horrible isolated place for the sake of duty and promotion.
Bruno thinks that the move to “Out-With” has been the most dreadful decision his father has ever made, and simply must be a mistake – until he looks out the window of his new bedroom and sees what is either a dreadful or wonderful thing – a “farm” which looks to have lots of people living on it.
“He walked slowly towards it, hoping that from here he might be able to see all the way back to Berlin and his house and the streets around it… He walked slowly because he didn’t want to be disappointed… He put his face to the glass and saw what was out there, and this time when his eyes opened wide and his mouth made the shape of an I, his hands stayed by his sides because something made him feel very cold and unsafe.”
Bruno knows that the “farm” is out of bounds. Even though no one in his family will actually tell him what is happening or why it is there and what all those people are doing, there is one thing they will tell him: that it is out of bounds without exception. But the isolation, boredom and curiosity eventually get the better of Bruno, and when he goes exploring along the fence, he makes the most wonderful discovery a young explorer could imagine: another boy.
An unlikely friendship emerges between the two boys, and Bruno’s secret visits become an almost daily tradition and the only enjoyable thing that Bruno can find at “Out-With.” Bruno brings food to Shumel, Shumel tells Bruno some of the truth about what is happening, and they hatch a plan to get them both onto the same side of the fence.
Overall, I found the book to be an easy read, although frustrating at times. I did find Bruno’s character to be slightly irritating, and probably would have found it more believable if he were a 5-6 year old boy rather than 9 years old. I know that he was created as a whiny, spoiled boy to contrast his wealth, health and naivety with the plight of Shumel, the hungry, dirty, tired young Jewish boy whose problems are more along the lines of “both of my grandparents died in this camp and now my father is missing” than Bruno’s “I’m bored and jealous that you get to wear pajamas all day and have lots of friends to play with.”
As well as this, the likelihood of the son of a high ranking Nazi being unaware of the war, and not indoctrinated with the hatred of the Jewish people seems incredibly low. I was reading in my coursework this week that in countries where deep racial hostility exists, children as young as 4 show signs of hatred based on ethnicity. I shouldn’t apply this kind of expectation to a novel, but still, it bothered me that he was so unaware. He certainly wasn’t a hero by any choice of his own, he may have stood side by side with Shumel in the end, but he didn’t know what he was risking by doing so.
I probably would have only rated it two stars, but then I watched the film (note: I watched it afterwards, adhering to the laws of Mrs Gwynn) and realised that I did actually quite like it – if I didn’t then I wouldn’t have been yelling at the screen, “Inaccurate! Lies! That didn’t happen! German’s don’t have British accents!!!” so… Three stars.