Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Book Review: The Boy in Striped Pajamas- John Boyne

     Again after reading Prisoner B-3087 and The Book Thief, I know that I said I wanted to avoid fictional accounts of the Holocaust and read more nonfiction accounts.  However, when I was talking about Prisoner B-3087 to my cousin who is a 3rd grade teacher, and works part-time at a bookstore, he recommended this book to me.  Usually I try to read what he recommends.
     This book was told from the perspective of an 8 year old boy who was the son of an SS Officer [although that term and Nazi and many other terms are not used in the book] who is put in charge of Auschwitz [again name not used in the book].  The boy reasonably misunderstands some names like Auschwitz and mispronounces it "Out With" which he assumes means that some people were told "Out with you", just like his family had to leave their large home in Berlin for one outside of the camp while Father ran it.  I can tolerate the mispronunciation and even the fact that Auschwitz is a German word [German name for the Polish town Oświęcim nearby] while "Out With" is what it sounds like in the English.  What I struggled with was how oblivious the boy was about the war going on.  I can understand his family and the Nazi party keeping the concentration camps under wraps and not letting word spread about it, but the main character seemed to have no realization that the war was occurring.  At least not until his sister began to obsessively follow troop movements in the latter parts of the book.
     I talked this over with my wife and she thought that it was plausible that the boy could have and would have been kept int he dark.  I'm still skeptical about this because I remember being 8 years old and in 3rd grade and know that the First Gulf War was going on.  Part of my knowledge of it was assisted by the fact that I started delivering newspapers in October 1990 and the first day I delivered the Monday front page showed troops in Kuwait as a part of Operation Desert Shield and  daily there was a yellow ribbon or orange ribbon on the cover.  Having said that I don't think my perspective was unique because I remember as things began to heat up in January 1991 a day where my teacher, who was probably not well prepared that day and so had just a junk fluff activity for us, had us go through a line over and over as she tore off a daily fact-of-the-day calendar page for each of us from the prior year.  I don't recall why, but we all seemed to say something as we got up to her before she'd read the little factoid on the paper and then tear it off and hand it to us and send us to the back of the line again.  Many students repeated the line "Saddam Hussein is insane".  I suppose it rhymed well,  I also remember having a soldier's picture that I was suppose to hang up in my room for a week at a time and pray for him at night, and then turn back in the following week at the church youth choir practice to trade for another soldier to pray for.  I watched news of the war on TV and had trading cards, like football cards, of weapons, generals, combat vehicles, missiles jets, and more.  Now I recognize so much of it as patriotism building and propaganda, but the Nazi's were notorious for that, and I would have to imagine that an SS member, put in charge of Auschwitz, who had "The Fury" himself over for dinner more than once would have been indoctrinating his children.  I suppose it is possible that he felt trapped and on the outside did everything right, while in private he sheltered his children, but it still seems like a stretch to me.
     Anyway, the boy doesn't like the move that his family has made and naively hopes to return home soon.  He notices pretty early on all of the men and boys in the fenced-in town next door and is amused about the striped pajamas they all wear.  He's told not to go exploring, so of course he does.  He eventually finds another little boy, who is not only his age, but shares his birthday on the other side of the fence.  The boys don't get to play together, but their relationship seems basic to me.  They have the common problem that they want to be the center of attention and share their stories, but don't really listen to each other's stories.  To some extent, I'm reminded of the early stage of infant and toddler development where little kids play around each other, but not really with each other.  The self-focused mindset of both boys would be intolerable in the book if it wasn't for the fact that the boy inside the fence is almost as oblivious to the world around him as his new friend.  There remains the possibility that this was done intentionally as a coping mechanism for the boy.
     Despite the negativity I have towards this book the end was still surprising and devastating- it is a Holocaust book after all.  I concur with the author that this book might be best directed towards a younger audience that is unaware of the Holocaust as a means of introducing it to them.  I don't know how young of an age that this needs to be done, nor do I recall at what age I first learned about it.  I know by late elementary I was aware of it and we read portions of Anne Frank's diary and also read Number the Stars.  That was the first of several times I was assigned to read both of those in school.  There were also numerous other books about the event that we read.  Again my complaint about how I was taught literature in K-12 reveals itself here as it seemed like every odd numbered school year 6th through 10 grade we did a unit which lasted from a month to a quarter about the Holocaust.  And much too often the accounts were fictional, which in addition to it being easier to distance yourself from the horror because you can say it was made up it also served to desensitize me and many of my peers towards those tragic events [on the contrary though, there were friends who had nightmares especially during the sophomore research project about some specific aspect of the Holocaust or Japanese Internment].  This book would be a good introductory book, but I don't know that it is the best book to use.  Also, I have found out since reading the book that it was adapted into a movie and so I hope to watch that soon.

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