Jesus took a child in his arms and told his disciples that if they wanted to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, they should become like one of these little ones. I think at least a part of what he meant was to let go of the jaded cynicism that allows adults to talk about evil as though it is something we all must accept and live with. The best way to really see through the pretenses of even the worst things in the world is to see them through the eyes of a child. In John Boyne's The Boy with the Striped Pajamas, Bruno, a nine year old boy, discovers first hand the horrors of the holocaust.
Boyne calls the book a parable and writes with a simple style that matches a child's innocent point of view. Bruno's naivety allows the reader to discover the concentration camp with "the charm of novelty," as though those images from history books and documentary films were never stamped sharply on his mind and he is standing with Bruno at the window of his new bedroom, both of their mouths "in the shape of an O," wondering what this could be. "To begin with, they weren't children at all. Not all of them, at least. There were small boys and big boys, fathers and grandfathers. Perhaps a few uncles too. And some of those people who live on their own on everybody's road but don't seem to have any relatives at all. They were everyone."
In some ways, Bruno seems too naive. I really think that at nine years old, if I had seen a vast array of men in striped pajamas surrounded by a fence, I would have surmised that this was some sort of prison. Still, there had to have been some purposefully self-induced blindness among German people during World War II. The alternative for Bruno was to accept that his father was a monstrously evil man, a conclusion that Bruno does not want to hear from his new friend Shmuel, but cannot always avoid, considering some of the glaringly wrong things he witnesses. One of the best illustrations of Bruno's inability to really take in his experiences is when the story of Shmuel's past does not sink into Bruno's mind until he is telling it to his sister. As Jesus often said of people, he had heard the story, but hadn't really listened to it.
Occasionally, Boyne goes too far and makes the children in the book unrealistically naive. When Gretel sees the concentration camp, she suggests that it is the countryside. After Shmuel's encounter with Lieutenant Kotler, Bruno asks him if he fell off his bicycle. Come on! My willing suspension of disbelief failed at those moments; the story crashed to the ground like the Hindenburg. Still, the story has stayed with me, and I have found myself mulling over it again and again.
- Jon Carter
- I am a high school English teacher who loves to read, and I'm passionate about finding quality books for my students to read. The reviews on this blog will reflect what I am currently reading and sometimes what my students are reading. The books that appear on the list are ones that I think would be of interest to high school students, are age appropriate in content and difficulty, and in some way tap into eternal truths. Most are classics, but some are just fun, popular books.