Nine-year-old Bruno enjoys his life in 1940's Berlin with his school and his three Best Friends for Life, despite the fact that his father is always busy with work and his bossy 12-year-old sister, Gretel, is A Hopeless Case. However, after a visit from The Fury, with his tiny mustache and blond girlfriend Eva, his life changes. Bruno's father has received an important work assignment far from Berlin. Bruno comes home from school to find the family's maid, Maria, packing everything in his wardrobe, even the things he'd hidden at the back that belonged to him and were nobody else's business.
The family's new home at Out With is swarming with soldiers, who call Bruno's father Commandant, and new servants who seem angry and frightened. Then there are the people who live behind the fence, surprisingly thin, identically dressed in striped pajamas. Bruno's father doesn't talk much about those people; he simply tells him that they're not really human.
Lonely for his friends, Bruno meets Schmuel, one of the children behind the fence. The boys share a birthday and even look a bit alike. They have both recently been displaced from their homes. Day after day, they sit on opposite sides of a barbed wire fence, talking and sharing snippets of their lives, without Bruno ever grasping what life is like on the other side.
John Boyne has written a short, deceptively simple story in which Bruno's extreme innocence and naivety is deliberately contrasted with the extreme cruelty and evil that we know is the backdrop for the story. Written in a simple, somewhat formal style, this novel is stripped down to bare bones. When an atrocity occurs, all the details are omitted; in a sense, this makes them even more disturbing.
Boyne ends the story with the ironic lines: "Of course all this happened a long time ago and nothing like that could ever happen again. Not in this day and age."
In his afterward, he takes us back to the image of the two boys sitting on opposite sides of the fence, a picture that came to him and compelled him to write this story. "Fences like this exist all over the world. We hope you never have to encounter one."
This story has been described as a parable. We see Bruno, sitting at the fence day after day, clearly glimpsing Schmuel's humanity, but not really understanding what's on the other side. He is surrounded by adults who know what's happening on the other side but deny the humanity of the people there.
This does seem like a particularly apt metaphor for our world, doesn't it? In a world plagued with wars, and with the overarching evil of genocide still alive and well, I identify with the child outside the fence, kind-hearted but shockingly oblivious to what's in front of him. As I got pulled into this simple story, I realized how powerful that image is, and I found myself looking at my reflection. It prodded me to ask the question: "How can I live in this world comfortably, not really looking at what's right in front of me?"
I recommend this thought-provoking book to all readers. And while I don't think it was written for children, it might be a good choice for middle grade or pre-teen readers who are ready for an introduction to The Holocaust. I'd preview it first, because while it leaves out all the gruesome details, it provokes disturbing questions. You might try pairing it with The Diary of Anne Frank or Number the Stars by Lois Lowry. For mature teens who are ready for gruesome details, you might couple it with The Devil's Arithmetic by Jane Yolen. If there are excellent young adult novels about the Bosnian conflict, the Rwandan genocide, and similar topics, these might also be a good fit.
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