John Boyne’s latest novel, The Terrible Thing That Happened to Barnaby Brocket (2013), has been shortlisted for the Irish Book Award: Children’s Book of the Year, an honour that The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas won when it was published in 2006; like The Boy in Striped Pyjamas, it has also been longlisted for the Carnegie Medal, so I felt that before reviewing it for Resource Links magazine (it is only due to be released this March), I felt I should read Boyne’s other two children’s books. According to John Boyne’s website, The Boy in Striped Pyjamas also won the “Irish Book Award People’s Choice Book of the Year, Bisto Book of the Year, Que Leer Award Best International Novel of the Year (Spain), Orange Prize Readers Group Book of the Year.” It was shortlisted for the “British Book Award, the Border’s New Voices Award; the Ottaker’s Children’s Book Prize, the Paolo Ungari Literary Award (Italy), Irish Book Award Irish Novel of the Year Award; the Leeds Book Award; the North-East Book Award; the Berkshire Book Award; the Sheffield Book Award; the Lancashire Book Award; Prix Farniente (Belgium); Flemish Young Readers Award; Independent Booksellers Book of the Year; Deutschen Jugend Literatur Preis (Germany).” It was also longlisted for the “Carnegie Medal and the International IMPAC Literary Award.” Quite the list of honours. It is really difficult, psychologically, to review a book that has won such accolades when I personally find it highly problematic. I am actually speaking of both the Boyne books I have read, but let us stick to The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas for the moment; my review of Barnaby Brocket will be published elsewhere fairly soon.
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas has a relatively simple plot. The protagonist, Bruno, is the son of a Nazi officer, recently promoted to Commandant of a place that Bruno mistakenly calls Out-With. Bruno does not understand why the people on the other side of the fence wear “striped pyjamas,” or why Pavel, who claims to be a doctor, should be serving him dinner. Bruno disobeys his parents’ command never to leave his residential compound, and goes “exploring” along the fence, for “for almost two hours” (107). Eventually, a young boy, Shmuel, comes to the fence and talks to him. The two build a friendship, just talking through the fence, until one day—the day before Bruno is scheduled to return to Berlin with his mother and sister—Bruno crawls under the loose wire of the fence to help Shmuel look for his father, who has disappeared. Things do not go well in the end, and Bruno’s father—finally figuring out what has happened to his lost son—is left to consider the personal ramifications of his engagement with the Nazi atrocities.
A number of children’s literature experts on the child_lit listserv took umbrage with The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, one at least feeling that it was inappropriate to ask the reader to be sympathetic to a Nazi child or, more significantly, to a Nazi parent, given the historical situation. My own opinion is that Boyne does manage to create a child narrator who is sympathetic in his naïveté; interestingly, though, it is that very naïveté that offends me as a reader.
There is a commercial currently playing on Canadian television for belVita breakfast bars—I believe—in which the 5-year-old child (or thereabouts) pictures his father “crawling through traffic” and being “buried under a mountain of paperwork” in his office. The young child visualizes the phrases literally, which is comic in an advertisement. In Boyne’s novel, however, Bruno exhibits the same lack of development, the same inability to interpret his world, as the child in the ad. The problem is: Bruno is 9 years old. Still, he cannot pronounce Auschwitz or Führer, repeating “Out-With” and “Fury” even after being corrected by his remarkably precocious 12-year-old sister. That he does not understand his father’s job intimately is not surprising, but that he has no idea—and when asked in class, “he realized that he didn’t know himself. All he could say was that his father was a man to watch and that the Fury had big things in mind for him. Oh, and that he had a fantastic uniform, too” (5). Later, when he forgets to salute, his father reminds him, and Bruno “made the signal, and said the phrase and imitated him exactly. … ‘Heil Hitler,’ he said, which, he presumed, was another way of saying, ‘Well, goodbye for now, have a pleasant afternoon” (53-54). To solidify our opinion of his intellect, Bruno later asks his father of Hitler: “Well, who is he anyway?) (117).
The Deutsches Jungvolk—the younger division of the Hitlerjugend (Hitler Youth) movement—had children from ages 10 and up. In fact, German elementary schools were universally teaching anti-Semitic doctrine as early as 1937. Mary Mills presents the following school math problem on her website: “The Jews are aliens in Germany—in 1933 there were 66,060,000 inhabitants in the German Reich, of whom 499,682 were Jews. What is the per cent of aliens?” (from Herbert Hirsch, Genocide and the Politics of Memory (Chapel Hill & London: U of North Carolina P, 1995) 119). Hitler’s propaganda machine even rewrote traditional fairy tales, as discussed in Ron Schlesinger’s 2010 investigation of “Red Riding Hood in the Third Reich: German fairy tale movies between 1933 and 1945.” As the children of a Nazi Commandant, Bruno and his sister would undoubtedly have been inculcated with Nazi propaganda from an early age, as were their peers. It is highly unlikely that Bruno’s parents shielded him from such ideological inculcation, given his father’s profession. If indeed they had shielded their children from the world, how do we account for the sexual precociousness of his sister, Gretel, who flirts, “putting on a silly voice that made her sound as if she hadn’t a thought in her head” (79), with one of the soldiers, Lieutenant Kotler?
Another logistical anomaly is the loose wire Bruno finds in the fence, exactly where he happens to rest, and happens to meet Shmuel. In the end, the boys use it to sneak Bruno into the camp; but if such an escape route existed, and Shmuel understood the gravity of his position—which is made explicit at times—why would Shmuel—and others—not have snuck out? Similarly, a 9-year-old concentration camp inmate would never have collaborated in sneaking a boy he cared for into the camp: the stakes were too high. Even more problematic, though, is Shmuel’s mere existence in Auschwitz, where children too young for arduous manual labour (as young Shmuel was) were immediately gassed, along with the old and infirm.
Effective literature for children about the Holocaust is very difficult to create. Lois Lowry has been criticized because her Number the Stars (1989) tells of perhaps the only Holocaust story with a happy ending: the transportation of the Danish Jews to neutral Sweden in 1943. But is there a way to write of the real horrors for young readers? I don’t mean stories of World War II, such as Donna Jo Napoli’s superb Stones in Water (1999), but stories of the Holocaust itself: of the persecution of the Jews and others sent to the death camps. For young adult readers, we have, or course, Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl (1947; English translation 1952), as well as Elie Weisel’s Night (1958), Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1986), Jane Yolen’s The Devil’s Arithmetic (1988), Jerry Spinelli’s Milkweed (2003), and actually quite a few others. For younger readers, though? Perhaps Roberto Innocenti’s picture book Rose Blanche (1986), or Judith Kerr’s When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit (1971), but I can think of none other that are both sufficiently historically truthful and yet psychologically palatable for the young. Certainly The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, in my estimation, does not succeed