A powerful concept, but very poorly written (even allowing for the young adult target audience) - and the only book I can think of that was better in the film version.
Bruno is 9 and lives in Berlin in 1943 with his parents and 12 year old sister. They are wealthy and his father is an important soldier who is promoted to be the Commandant at Auschwitz. The trick of the story is that Bruno doesn't realise the horror of what goes on behind the barbed wire, where everyone wears striped pyjamas, even when he befriends a boy of the same age at a corner of the camp.
Although his father can be strict and distant, Bruno is unfailing in his trust in the goodness of his father. In the film, there was at least a gradual, if reluctant, dawning of doubt about his father and all he stood for, but that doesn't happen in the book; the themes of family, friendship and trust are barely touched on.
The main problem is that it's told from Bruno's viewpoint, but the dialog doesn't ring true and Bruno is implausibly ignorant (extremely so) for a boy of his age, class and education. Not knowing, and not wanting to know, the horror of what was happening is entirely understandable (especially when a parent is involved). However, he hasn't heard of "the Fatherland", thinks the Fuhrer is called The Fury (throughout), that Auschwitz is called "Out With" and that "Heil Hitler" means "goodbye"! Yet we're meant to believe that he's the 9 year old son of a senior Nazi (and the puns wouldn't work in German, anyway)! His father had clearly been neglecting his duty to train the next generation of Hitler youth.
But there are plenty of other flaws:
* Surely some aspects of Schmuel's plight would have been glaringly obvious (emaciated, shorn hair, possibly lice-ridden, ragged clothes etc)?
* There are several stock phrases that are trotted out annoyingly often ("a Hopeless Case", "mouth in the shape of an O", "if he was honest as he always tried to be").
* They talk of miles not kilometres and feet not centimetres, which might not matter were the rest of it more realistic.
* Just occasionally, and completely out of character, Bruno talks in an unnaturally adult way ("If you ask me we're all in the same boat. And it's leaking", and a nasty person who "always looked as if he wanted to cut someone out of his will").
It might have worked better if Bruno had been 5 or 6, but I suppose the target audience would have been less willing to read it, so the result is a book that isn't really suitable for any age group. What a waste.Postscript
, arising from Kelly Hawkins' review:
I think the most frequent criticism of the book in the years since it’s been published is that Bruno is too naive. People say: “He’s verging on the stupid – how could he not know?” For all the criticisms you can make, I always feel that’s the wrong one because he’s grown up in a house with his father wearing a uniform, so I always think why would be question it? There wouldn’t be any motivation for him to suddenly turn around… if your father came home wearing a doctor’s uniform every day, you wouldn’t turn around one day and ask: “Why are you wearing that?”
So, Bruno is kind of representing that blindness, in a way. When he goes to the fence, and when he asks that question, he is kind of representing the rest of us who are trying to understand the Holocaust and find some answers to it. Also, when the camps were liberated, the world was surprised through 1945 and 1946. The majority of the Holocaust had taken place over four years and, granted, it was a different information age but I still maintain that in those sorts of movies, the naivety is appropriate. It’s based on real life.
Elsewhere, he is quoted as saying that naivety and complacency were two of the main reasons the Holocaust occurred (http://yareviews.wikispaces.com/The+Boy+in+the+Striped+Pajamas+by+John+Boyne).
I find that a very unsatisfying defence. It answers why people don't want to know the horrors (which I fully acknowledge), but does not begin to tackle Bruno's specific ignorance of common words related to the Third Reich.