Author: John Boyne, 2006.
Genre: Young Adult. Marketed as Historical Fiction. WWII - Holocaust.
Other Details: Hardback. 214 pages.
The novel opens in Berlin, in the early 1940s. Bruno is the 9-year old son of a high ranking Nazi officer. When his father is given an important new command, Bruno is reluctant to leave his friends. At this new home, which Bruno pronounces as 'OutWith', he is at first bored and lonely. He is also confused about why there are so many people there wearing only grey striped pyjamas and living in huts behind a high fence. Totally oblivious to the reality of the situation, Bruno makes friends with Shmuel, a Jewish boy his own age who lives on the other side of the fence. He secretly meets and talks to him daily. Eventually Bruno's friendship with Shmuel takes him from innocence to revelation.
Very quickly I dubbed this a 'fairytale' as surely no child of a high ranking Nazi could be so naive as to what was happening or not have been indoctrinated from an early age with anti-Semitic propaganda. There were so many glaring inconsistencies that I could not really take this seriously as a work of historical fiction and this constantly threw me out of any proper engagement with the story and characters. In later editions, Boyne has included author's notes explaining that this was meant to be read as a fable. My library edition did not include this, though its title page did contain the subtitle: 'a Fable', something I did not notice until I was finished though and a review brought it to my attention.
I will say upfront that I had no real desire to read this book and my heart rather sank when it was chosen by one of the reading groups I attend. Still I did read it because I wanted to be able to participate in the discussion. Most of the members of my reading group did find it very moving. We also discussed the film adaptation in some depth and the changes made that seemed to address some of the criticism levelled at the book.
Does it serve as an introduction for young adults or as an opening for teachers or parents to discuss the events of the Holocaust with young adults? That is not really a question I can really answer. Although I had issues with the content, I did find that it was written in a simple, readable style. Bruno's growing awareness of the real situation might well serve as a metaphor for a young reader's own awareness of harsh historical and political realities. The book does seem to have gathered many 5-star reviews on sites such as Amazon and on the CBBC's site a number of 11-12 years olds have written how moved they were by it. So yes, maybe it is doing the job the author intended.
Still I can't put myself back into that state of 'unknowing' and so for me the inaccuracies were far too glaring. If I wanted to choose a work of contemporary fiction aimed at young adults on the same issue I'd probably have chosen Jane Yolen's, The Devil's Arithmetic or even return to The Diary of Anne Frank, which had been my own introduction at school to the subject of the Holocaust.
John Boyne's web-page for the book.