For the fourth week of the Read 52 Books in 52 Weeks challenge, I read The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne.
This book has received mixed reviews - some people on Goodreads rate it very highly (5 out of 5 stars), while others have very strong reactions against it and rate it poorly (1 or 2 out of 5 stars). However, I found this historical fiction book that centers on Auschwitz during World War II - to be a heart-breaking story on many different levels.
The story focuses on the friendship that develops between two boys who would be unlikely to meet one another under more favorable circumstances. Bruno (from Berlin who is the nine-year old son of an SS Officer who was promoted to commandant of Auschwitz concentration camp) and Shmuel (from Poland who is a nine-year old Jewish prisoner in the concentration camp).
Bruno wants to be an explorer and when he arrives in Poland is intrigued by the "farm" outside his bedroom window as his older sister (Gretel) and he think it may be. Although he is forbidden to investigate the fence line as well as the concentration camp itself by both his mother and father, he leaves his home many times over the course of the year and walks along the high, razor-wire topped fence.
A far distance from his home, he encounters Shmuel to whom he brings food, talks, and forms a deep friendship. He is able to see beyond the religious and cultural prejudices that others he encounters have towards those in the concentration camp.
What struck me as unusual was how naive Bruno was in terms of his knowledge of his father's job and where they were living once they arrived in Poland from Berlin. he was unaware of the name of the concentration camp (referring to it throughout the story as "Out-With") and its purpose.
Because of his compassion - mixed with a bit of naivete - Bruno seeks similarities between he and Shmuel versus differences - from things as simple as a shared birthday to those more difficult - like moving from one's home against one's will. He is hopeful and trusting...in contrast to Shmuel who, unfortunately, has seen first-hand a multitude of reasons to possess neither of those qualities.
This same innocence draws Bruno into Shmuel's world - one vastly different than he imagined - in an effort to find Shmuel's father who disappeared and couldn't be found. Having had his head shaved because he had lice, Bruno changes into a pair of striped pajamas and cap that Shmuel brought for him so he would look just like the other people at Auschwitz...except healthier. Bruno manages to crawl under a section in the fencing and both boys explore the camp together, hoping to find Shmuel's father.
Rather than getting to go home where a delicious meal would await him, Bruno has to face some uncomfortable - and frightening - feelings while there. The dramatic climax to this somber tale left me both astonished and devastated.
There are so many interesting themes in this book and between multiple characters such as truth versus deception; loyalty versus abandonment; and good versus evil. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas would be a good book to further explore not only these themes, but the concepts of loss, grief, searching, and fear - which almost every character shows at some point in the book - no matter a person's age, gender, role, religious beliefs, or job.
This is an easy book to read in terms of length and writing style (though certainly not in subject matter), and one that I finished in a morning. After reading this book and Brave New World last week, I feel like I need some lighter reading on less depressing subjects. Although I would recommend this book, it is certainly one that is a haunting story that one is left reflecting upon.