The Boy in the Striped Pajamas takes place in Germany during World War II (so you know right away that the author has one goal in mind: make the reader cry at any cost). Our narrator is nine-year-old Bruno, whose family moves to the countryside for his father’s job. Because this is Nazi Germany and because John Boyne wouldn’t know subtlety if it smacked him upside the head with the Subtle Baseball Bat, we soon figure out that Bruno’s dad works at Auschwitz, but the truth of this is kept from Bruno. He goes exploring and finds the fence border of the camp, and befriends a boy his own age who lives in the camp. Throughout all of this, Bruno remains unaware of the horrors going on practically in his backyard.
As Michael Kors once sighed to a clueless designer on Project Runway: Where do I start?
Let’s open with some descriptive words that sum up this book, and I will then go on to explain them in further detail: Patronizing. Insipid. Smarmy. Just plain bad.
Patronizing: I believe that to write good children’s literature, you have to think that children are intelligent, capable human beings who are worth writing for. Stephen King, for instance, is really good at writing from a child’s perspective because he understands how children think and respects them as logical and capable human beings. The author of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, on the other hand, thinks that children are idiots. Bruno is supposed to be nine years old, but compared to him Danny Torrance of The Shining (who was seven) looks like a Mensa member. There’s childlike naivety, and then there’s Bruno, who is so stunningly unobservant and unperceptive that I actually started to wonder if he was supposed to be mentally deficient somehow. And he’s not the only child who receives Boyne’s withering scorn and condescension. Take this scene between Bruno and his sister Gretel, when they’ve just moved to their house at “Out-With” (as Bruno insists on calling it, despite being corrected many times and seeing the name written down) and are wondering how long they’re going to stay there. Bruno’s father, a commandant in charge of the camp, has told the kids that they’ll be there “for the foreseeable future” and Bruno doesn’t know what that means.
“‘It means weeks from now,’ Gretel said with an intelligent nod of her head. ‘Perhaps as long as three.'”
Gretel is twelve years old, by the way. TWELVE. See what I meant about Boyne thinking kids are morons?
Insipid And Smarmy: this book was not meant for kids to read. It’s meant for adults who know about the Holocaust already, so they can read it and sigh over the precious innocent widdle children’s adorable misunderstanding of the horrible events surrounding them and how they still remain innocent and uuuuuuggggggghhhhh. There’s a scene towards the end, where Bruno puts on a pair of the “striped pajamas” so he can visit his friend on the other side of the fence. Bruno has had lice, so his head is shaved. When he puts on the pajamas, the Jewish boy observes him and the narration commits the following Hallmark-worthy atrocity: “If it wasn’t for the fact that Bruno was nowhere near as skinny as the boys on his side of the fence, and not quite so pale either, it would have been difficult to tell them apart. It was almost (Shmuel thought) as if they were all exactly the same really.”
YES JOHN BOYNE I SEE WHAT YOU DID THERE.
Just Plain Bad: This book is, technically, historic fiction, but there is nothing historical in this book. Bruno is supposed to have grown up in Nazi Germany as the son of a high ranking SS officer, but based on his knowledge of the world he lives in, he’s spent his entire nine years sitting inside with his eyes shut humming loudly with his fingers stuffed in his ears. Okay, I get that he wouldn’t know about the concentration camps – hardly anyone did at that point. But there are other things: Bruno consistently (and adorably!) mispronounces the Fuhrer as “the Fury” (I SEE WHAT YOU DID THERE JOHN BOYNE), and doesn’t recognize the following key words and phrases: Jews, Fatherland, Heil Hitler. What. The fuck.
Okay, so maybe this kid’s too young to be in Hitler Youth (his sister isn’t though, but for some reason she’s not in it either), but come on – he thinks “Heil Hitler” is just a polite way to end a conversation. A nine-year-old boy growing up in a military household in Nazi Germany doesn’t know what Heil Hitler means. A nine-year-old boy going to school and living in Nazi Germany doesn’t recognize the word “Jew.”
All of this comes back to my original thesis: John Boyne thinks that children are idiots who never notice anything. This is insulting on a lot of levels. Children are intelligent, and they see everything. They are not mindless paragons of blind innocence who you can use as billboards to project your ham-fisted message of tolerance and love, and I think the Holocaust was bad enough already without people like Boyne using it as a metaphor for his stupid parable.
Verdict: no stars. negative stars. two middle fingers.