Holocaust Fable a Disappointment

Posted on July 31, 2010


I’ve heard so many good reviews of John Boyne’s  The Boy in the Striped Pajamas I could hardly wait to read it.  I finally found time this summer.  My first impression?  disappointing.

Boyne sets up the story as a fable, according to the subtitle.  Yet, for me anyway, it didn’t work.  While I liked his sympathetic portrait of the nine-year-old German Bruno and the Jewish prisoner Shmuel, the plot just seemed to keep pounding me over the head with its obviousness.  For example, once we arrive at the death camp, Bruno’s older sister Gretel asks, “‘Who are all those people?’ she asked in a quiet voice, almost as if she wasn’t asking Bruno but looking for an answer from someone else. ‘”  A few pages later, after noting that the camp’s inmates are all wearing striped pajamas, he mutters “‘How extraordinary’ . . .before turning away.” Boyne’s attempt at poignancy and foreshadowing is so heavyhanded as to become ludicrous.

One of the younger Nazi  soldiers is described as having “. . .very blond hair, an almost unnatural shade of yellow.”  Every time afterwards when we see this character, Boyne makes sure to mention his unnaturally blond hair yet again.  Bruno refers to the camp as “Off With”, his mispronunciation of the Polish Auschwitz.  Nice the first one or two times, but not when repeated seemingly endlessly.  Yet I do rather like when Bruno refers to his father’s boss, “The Fury”, whom we know, of course, as the Führer, Adolph Hitler.  Still, Boyne tries to carry this trick too far by repeating it at least half a dozen times before Bruno is corrected.  Yes, we get it, Mr. Boyne.  We’re not stupid.

Then there’s the dreaded lice epidemic, which forces Bruno to acquire a shaved head.  Wow!  He looks just like Shmuel, on the other side of the fence!  They could be twins!  They’re so much alike it’s scary.  Add this to Bruno’s desire to visit the camp to have friends to play with, and you can see where this story is headed before you’re even a quarter of a way through the book.

If you want to read a good book on the Holocaust, don’t bother with this overrated work.  Instead, try reading a survivor’s account.  There are, unfortunately in the sense of so many people having to experience this horror, far too many to choose from.  All deserve to be read, unlike this silly little novel that just plain tries to hard.  Try Isabella Leitner’s Fragments of Isabella or the classic by Elie Wiesel, Night.  Both are shorter than Boyne’s work, accessible, and cut you to the bone with their elegant simplicity and power.

Posted in: Lesson Plans