Monday, August 06, 2007

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne

I really loved this book, it was not at all what I expected, I was expecting a more traditional holocaust story but boy was I surprised. I loved the perspective from which it is told. I don’t even know where to begin the discussion…there is so much about this fable that I would love to talk about!

First, I’m curious to see what you all thought of Bruno and Gretel? Did anyone else think that Bruno seem younger than nine? Maybe he had to be for this book to work? And at age 12 shouldn’t Gretel have known something of what was going on around her? Been involved in Hitler’s Youth? They both seemed terribly naïve to me. Bruno I could understand- Gretel??? Going even deeper…perhaps the author intended to use this to drive home the point that many people were ignorant of the killings during this time…whether they chose to close their eyes to the atrocities or just didn’t see it?

Second, the use of “out-with” and “Fury”. At first this just frustrated me…I wanted someone to please tell Bruno the correct pronunciations! But then the more I thought about it I realized the author used them as a literary device…a word play? And then the light bulb went off regarding the double meaning to these words. Think the kids would pick up on this? Too subtle? Also, I wonder if the author wanted to avoid naming the camp? Maybe he wanted it to be a generic name for any camp?

Third, again the parents! Didn’t they pay any attention to their children? Again, that background role! The mother had potential…but I wanted her to do more and to be “better.” I felt let down by her actions, or lack thereof. Was she typical of German females of her time?

The ending! Once again I had those rose colored glasses on! I did not see this coming at all. When Bruno put on the striped pajamas it dawned on me what was going to happen. WOW. My only regret is that the father never found his son’s body and never really discovered his sad fate…I wanted him to KNOW what happened to his boy and to feel terrible remorse…and to atone for his actions.

I was amazed at the feelings this book invoked in me. While only hinting at violence, hatred, and horrible conditions the author managed to certainly send a tremendous message. What a great read. I could easily see this paired with Diary of Anne Frank or Night. And it definitely has a place in the Global classroom!

I also loved the Author’s Note. I read an interview with the author is which he is asked about the fences he mentions in his note. His response was this: “As an Irishman growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, I was only too aware of the divides --- the fences --- that existed in my own country, and that caused violence and killing for families throughout Northern Ireland for too many years. And while those problems have for the most part been solved, it is easy to identify situations around the world throughout my own lifetime, in places such as South Africa, Kosovo, Srebenica, Rwanda, where the metaphorical fences that I talk about have existed/still exist. The genocide of the 1940s was perhaps the worst case of inhumanity that the world has ever seen, but we do not live in a peaceful world even now, 60 years later. I suppose I hoped that younger readers who might be moved by the story of Bruno & Shmuel would grow up with the intention of pulling those fences down wherever they existed, whenever they could.”

Powerful stuff. Anxious to hear what you all thought.

16 comments:

Dawn said...

I felt that The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne was a pretty good read. There were points in the book where I felt it was slow. While reading I felt that the level of the book was low and think that it could be paired with a middle school unit on the Holocaust. I believe high school students would lose attention while reading this.

It was difficult for me to connect with the characters. I did feel that Bruno and Gretel were naïve given the situation. I would have thought that the parents would be more open to explaining what was taking place to Bruno (molding him for the future.) I wondered how much Gretel knew because in the beginning she seemed to know little but near the end she became frustrated with Bruno for calling the place Out With. Also, she started out doing very young things, like playing with dolls, but she lost interest in them by the end of the book. I wondered if her growth also included knowledge about what was taking place near her new home.

One question I had was about Lt. Kotler. Why was he sent away? Was it because of the information he shared about his father, or did he have something going on with Bruno’s mother? I felt that Bruno’s mother and Lt. Kotler’s relationship was weird, and I think it stems from the time that they made Bruno leave the room when they were together. Does anyone have some insight on this?

The ending of the book was sad. I was shocked that right up until the end Bruno was sticking up for his father and making it sound like his father would make everything better. It is amazing that Bruno was so optimistic about everything. I wondered where he learned that from because it probably wasn’t his parents teaching him that.

As mentioned before, I think this book would be good for middle school students. It would have to be paired with a unit on the Holocaust because I am not sure they could understand it otherwise. The timeframe of the book was a little frustrating because it seemed to go daily and then all of a sudden a year passed. I wish a little more information was given throughout the book, but I understand that giving more information could ruin the ending when Bruno is killed with his friend.

Cathy said...

At first I too said not another book on the Holocaust. But, this one was different.At first Bruno's naivity bothered me but then I realized that he had to be retarded the actions in the book made sense.My reasoning was 1. he used the word fury ( by the final solution period) every school child would know about Hitler and what the salute meant)2. Not pronouncing Auschwitz( I think that was the death camp they were at)3. couldn't remember his friends names 4.bullied 5.sister called him idiot mom not happy but allowed stupid ( I know siblings might use the words without meaning)6. the asides when he always tries to be truthful 7. his concrete meanings of what is being said 8. father does not expalain to him about the concentration camp just that the people are less than human and stay away 9. does not know about the Jews. 10. Is very literal 11. Thinks in terms of himself 12 believes everything he is told.13 he did not know what his father did for a living
If my interpretation is correct then this book has so much more meaning. The parents must have tried to protect Bruno from the realities also as we know Hitler did not allow "damaged" individuals to live. That may have been why the children were shooed away when Hitler came. I know children were to be seen and not heard but they would have been serving or doing something special not just being shooed away not even brought down to say good bye. So it becomes ironic at the end that Bruno is killed in the gas chamber. Kathy I felt the father did know what hapened when the last time he went to the fence and that is why he did not care when they took him away. I felt he realized that he had killed his son.
Historically how I would use this book. I would use it as part of a trilogy. Breaking the class into differet reading groups. One book would be Milkweed,I can't remember the title of the second book but it's about a family that hides Jews but their daughter does not know and turns them in. We would do it as a culmination of the unit starting with them writing what they know about WWII social, political and economic and then comparing what happened in the books.Lastly we would discuss "fences" how could this not happen again?
The parents and grandparents I found very interesting. First Grandmother who was obviously against Hitler. I wondered if her death was of natural causes?? She was outspoken and a performer. I thought that immediately when she commented on her son's uniform. There were so many spies in Nazi Germany. Mother obviously had a drinking problem. I thought she drank because she did not like her life as the wife of the Commandent. She protected Pavel which would be uncharacteristic of a woman in her postion and she understood the grandmother when at the funeral she said that grandmother would be angry at the flowers sent by Hitler. Dad seemed the true German Patriarch. Military WWI-WWII, head of the family but showed compassion for Bruno when he came to his office at the camp and aruged why they should go home. Dad also worried about their positon if he did not do as he was told "What would happen to us?" I thought this was not just a worry like an ordinary sodlier but a worry about his son if he were under scrutiny. Grandpa seemed to be proud of his son and a true patriotic German who tried to hush his wife.
Gretel is 12 at the beginning of the book and playing with dolls does not seem that far out She has her friends. At almost 13 she starts flirting which seems normal. I was afarid of the relationship since it did not bother the soldier about her age. I thought that might have led to his transfer. It could have been their was a relationship with mom as well. The only part I questioned about Gretel was her reply to Bruno about the Jews and he asked who are we? She said the opposite. She should have said the Aryans but she like the rest of the family might not have thought Bruno would understand.
Schmuel was my favorite character because he acted like someone his age and in his circumstance would act.Through him you felt the horror of the camp. I liked the author introduction when Schmuel is walking toward the fence he starts out as a dot then Bruno sees him getting bigger maybe something alive and finally a person. I felt that symbolized how Jews were not human and then how Bruno sees Schmuel as a person and a friend. Schmuel is emaciated, his palor is gray and he has no energy. He cowers at commands yet will break rules to get food that he needs. He doesn't really think he will find his Dad but has hope. Hope is all that kept some people alive in the camps.
Histroical accuracy- 1. Bruno does learn that Germany is the best country- he tells this to Schmuel when he learns that he is in Poland 2. The idea that Germans were fighting to get thier pride back as stated by grandpa 3. The Teacher Litz who made a comment that all you should be learning is about Germany and the Fatherland how great it is. Which led me to the censorship of books and the brain washing that took place in the educational system. 4.the idea that Jews were less than human and that is why they could be treated so badly and have to be put in camps 5. the movement of Schmuel's family form their house to a one room shared with 15 people in the Warsaw Ghetto and then the train ride and seperation of his family into the camp. 6. Pavel having been a doctor and now a servant doing whatever jobs the soldiers ask .7. the work groups and disappearance of the marchers they did not know they were going to be gassed. 8. the good life in Berlin people enjoying food and leisure as if nothing was going on
9. The introduction of Hitler Eva Braun There is enough relality in the book that would make it good for Global Studies. I felt that the author's use or sould I say non use of language would make this appropriate for Middle School or High School at the 9th ot 10th grade level.
Kathy I too read the author's notes and was impressed by "fences" and I appreciate you sharing the comments that you knew about. I too feel the frustration of the continuance of genocide , ethnic cleansing that goes on in the world. So I will keep on teaching with the hope that students who read, watch, study about the Holocaust will be the generation that will stop it.

Pam L said...

I think Dawn is right about the reading level for this book. I was thinking middle school as I was reading it too; however, I'm constantly coming across students in my 15:1 and CT classes who have a very low reading level. Now this might not be exciting enough to hold their interest, but for a student who maybe has an interest in the Holocaust or the military perhaps it would be an option.

I liked this story a lot and could feel what was coming at the end but not until the boys started talking about Bruno coming through the fence. I really thought though that they would be saved and the discovery would prompt some positive change in the Commandant. I too wanted the body of Bruno discovered but I guess the Holocaust history has already been written and there is no happy ending. All of the bodies of the Holocaust victims are unidentified so Bruno's needed to be too. Also, we can't just describe the Germans' feeling for the Jews as
"hatred." It was more serious than that. It was irrational and they did not accept the Jews as human. Therefore, the Commandant could not fathom his son, his flesh and blood, befriending a young Jew and certainly would not have entertained the thought that his son would put on those striped pajamas and cross that line.

I also felt the same way Dawn did about the children being so naive. European children and young adults tend to be more worldly in their knowledge and concern about politics and economics. Let's face it, over there you can get on a train and in an hour or two you can be in a different country with a different language, government, culture, etc. What happens in that next door country can greatly affect you. So yes, I was surprised that they didn't understand at least some of what was going on, if not at the beginning then certainly by the end.

My take on Kotler is that he was getting too confident in his place in that household and that he and the wife were, perhaps, getting a little too friendly (the stage was set for that... she was a very lonely, unhappy woman). Although I think his cozy relationship with the wife might have gone unnoticed by the distracted Commandant if Kotler had been more discreet when discussing his own family history. That disclosure at the dinner tabel sealed his fate.

So I felt this was a thought-provoking read and could definitely see this being used in a social studies or English class to help students understand the Holocaust.

Darla said...

I loved it

Darla said...

This was a great choice and I will use this with Night and Escape From Sobibor in my classroom.
It does bring up more questions than it answers, but I think that the author may want the readers to feel the doubt and confusion that the characters were feeling. One thing that I really remember from my trip to the Dachau Concentration Camp is the news footage showing neighbors to the camp coming in and viewing what had been taking place. They said that they had no idea what was going on. Who would even imagine such autrocities from "civilized" people? In the book, Gretel gives clues that she is beginning to understand by throwing away all her precious dolls and placing maps with colored pins in the cities throughout Europe. The children were intelligent and she grew to understand what was taking place, but who would want to think that your father was involved in all of this? I chalk it up to denial and we could see how the mother was dealing with that through her afternoon naps and her "medications." Yes, Kathy, where are the parents in all of this? No one seemed to notice Bruno sneaking off every day and if the servants did they surely were not going to say anything. And what about the grandmother? I feel that her death may have been suspicious. She spoke out against what was happening and it caused a gulf in the family. I liked her with her vivacious ways and creativity. She was so spunky, just the type who would speak out.
But then she was gone....Bruno was amazing. So sweet and kind and he shows the "other side of the fence" and how those who were not victims were affected. Although very sad, this book was good to read because it taught a valuable lesson with style and class.

Jen said...

I feel the same about many of the comments that are already here. I liked this book and can see some specific times I may recommend it. Overall, it felt very "middle school" which I think both Dawn and Pam have already stated. I thought that the relationship between the mother and Kotler was to provide some depth and insight into the mother's lonliness. Yet, it seemed unfinished.
I also agree with Pam when she states that Europeans (in general) are more aware of what is going on politically in the world. When I taught in Wales, I was always amazed at how much people (of all ages) knew about what was going on in the world. I liked the book overall, but did not love it. I hope this blog posts because my favorite books thus far was Finding Alaska and my blog would not post from summer school for some reason.

Amanda said...

I really enjoyed this book. I thought the point of view it was told through made it stand out among the other stories about the Holocaust out there. While Bruno's naivete might not be beleivable, perhaps it did represent an overall unknowing of how bad things really were to those on the outside, whether that be because of ignorance or denial. I thought Bruno's lack of knowledge of the situation and innocence would allow the reader to make several inferences and connections to what they have learned about the Holocaust. I agree that the reading level of the book would be ideal for our 15:1 students and would be a nice culuminating book to see what connections they are able to make.
I thought Gretel's change in personality during the book was interesting. I think that age 12-13 is a pivotal age for girls and boys because it is a transition from child to young adult.
It sounded to me like the Lt. and mother were getting too close. I think it stated in the book that the mother started to have more "medicinal sherries" after the Lt. was sent to a different station.
The end of the book was sad and it was hard to read on knowing what Bruno was going to do and knowing that something horrible was going to happen to him. His innocence remained intact all the way up to his death. The vision I get of that moment is heartbreaking, Bruno and Schmel holding hands, not knowing that it would be for the rest of their lives. In the end, Bruno and Schmel were the same despite living on opposite sides of the fence. I believe that Bruno's dad realized what had happened eventually and I wonder what his thoughts were of the camps after that...
I really liked the fence metaphor, though it seemed that crossing the fence wasn't the answer, but perhaps taking it down is. It would be interesting to hear what examples of metaphoric fences students can generate and to also discuss how fences aren't always so concrete.

Kim Seeley said...

I had been looking at this book in the library every time I went in! Finally! I really liked the book. It is definitely more for a 15:1 class than a CT class. Many of my incoming freshman have EXTREMELY low reading levels. Since it is at such a low reading level, I don't think my kids would even pick up on how naive Bruno was. I was planning on using this for a self contained 15:1 Freshman English class but I don't think I am teaching it anymore. It would be perfect for that level. Although I did like this book, I predicted that Bruno would be killed with the others. I think because it was such a low reading level that I kind of saw through a lot. Overall, great pick and one that I would recommend to my lower level reading students!

rebeccakryger said...

I liked the concept of the story but not the way the author went about it. Bruno was naive to the point of it not being believeable, at least for a nine-year-old. Some of the repetitive language got annoying too (Gretel being the "hopeless case" and Maria packing the things in the back of his closet and "were nobody else's business" etc.). I do like the message that Bruno saw Shmuel as just a possible playmate and not as "not human" as his father described those behind the fence. I also like the irony of the ending--Bruno unknowingly walking into a death chamber ordered/controlled by his own father. Despite my dislike for the author's voice, the ending did make my heart break for Bruno's innocence and gave me something to think about. I think the message of this novel is too important to not recommend it. This would be a good companion read to The Diary of Anne Frank in middle school, but I don't see high school students staying interested in a nine-year-old narrator who seems to act even younger.

Cathy-I may be reading the wording of your blog wrong--were you saying that you think Bruno was mentally handicapped? If so, I don't agree. Yes, he was pretty clueless as to what was going on, but I don't think it's plausible that in Germany at a time when Germans believed themselves to be the superior race that the son of one of the highest ranking officials would have a mentally handicapped son living at home and meeting the furor. Unfortunately, I feel like if Bruno had disabilities he would have been kept from view or perhaps institutionalized. The Commandant would have to maintain a reputation of perfection and superiority and he wouldn't flaunt a disabled son in front of the leader of the "superior race of people." Just a thought!

Cathy said...

Rebecca, yes I thought that Bruno was handicapped what we used to cal educationally mentay retarded probably an IQ around 60-70 which would not necessarily show up in early education but later his slowness would be obvious. That is why I thought that his parents were protecting him with them all going to the death camp. There was no reason for the entire family to move there except if they were protecting thier son.
We all agree that the book is geared for the lower reading levels. Bruno being handicapped is the only explantion for him acting like a 6 year old when he is 9.My point is that he did not flaunt Bruno ao his sister say hi and goodnight and do not come down. If you do not take that stance I can hear my students saying "what's wrong with this kid is he retarded?" In a book called Milkweed the character is about 6-7 and shows navitie and it works.

Becky said...

I enjoyed this book and found it to be a quick easy read. I think that the reading level may be low but would be great for 15-1 students. The simple language and easy to follow story would allow them to keep up at all times.

I was a little bit bothered by how young Bruno seemed, much younger than nine. Possibly because he comes from a higher up wealthy family he was protected. I think maybe his parents just wanted him to live as "normal" a life as possible for as long as possible and therefore may have shielded him from the truth. His father may not have wanted his son to grow up to follow in his footsteps. I think the same may go for his sister, Gretel, although she obviously began understanding much more towards the end.

I think that the perspective from which this story is told makes it very unique. It is unlike any Holocaust book I have read before. I was hopeful right up to the finish for a happy ending although I knew it was impossible.

I was annoyed by Lieutenant Kolter's character but think that he was necessary. He was the only one in the military that Bruno actually disliked and allowed him to see a tiny bit of insight into the way things really were.

One other thing that bothered me a bit, but I ignored in order to enjoy the book, was the fact that there was an area of the concentration camp which was unsupervised enough for Bruno and Shmuel's visits to take place. Did areas like that really exist? Especially unsupervised areas with with an unattached fence..?? Wouldn't Shmuel have told his family and maybe tried to escape?

All in all I thought this was a good read and would definitely recommend it to middle school or 15-1 students.

cvanslyk said...

I loved this book. This is the first time I have read anything about the Holocaust from the perspective of a child of a commandant. At first I thought that the family was being evacuated to a death camp because they were Jewish. I agree with Cathy that an argument could be made for the idea that Bruno was mildly retarded. This would not have been readily visible to Hitler since he only saw him for a minute and was very disinterested. He definitely had some issues with memory. This was evidenced when he would take food from his house to his friend and then forget and eat it on the way. Referring to Gretel constantly as a lost cause was annoying but could be another factor that could support the possibility of mental retardation. The father knew exactly what had happened to Bruno at the end of the story and fell apart. Since he then ceased to be any asset to Hitler, he was then eliminated as the grandmother had been for speaking out. The only part I had difficulty with was the fact that Schmuel was able to wander off every day. I would have thought that all the prisoners were contained and guarded at all times. If he was insignificant enough to be allowed to wander around freely, he would have been eliminated. The reading level would be appropriate for many of my 15:1 students. They enjoyed the book "Night" and "Freedom Writers" and probably would enjoy this as well. The mother and Gretel knew what was going on and developed their own ways of dealing with the fact that they knew it was very wrong. There are so many issues in this book that would make very interesting class discussions.

Darla said...

Bruno, mentally retarded?

Darla said...

I felt that Bruno was very bright and perceptive for his age. As I mentioned before, when Charlene and I went to Dachau, I was very surprised to learn that people living right next to the concentration camp did not know what was happening and these were many intelligent adults. It was very likely for Bruno to be extremely naive. Look how many people all over the world were fooled. Bruno was bright and studied difficult subjects. We are told the story through innocent eyes which makes the story that much more tragic.

Kathy J. said...

I agree with Darla...I think the author used Bruno to illustrate innocence and naitivity...and to show how easy it was for many people to have been deceived and ignorant of what was going on around them.

I also feel, that the although the reading level might be low, it is definately still appropriate for high school students. I think the message and techniques the author uses (literary devices such as symbolism, word plays, etc...) plus the historical content and current political issues are very mature. I was surprised that many of you felt it was more appropriate to middle school or 15-1.

I also love Cathy's idea of using this in a unit with other books and breaking into literary circles...I would maybe even use a book that deals with a modern story of genocide?! This would work in social studies or English.

I know there are still a few people left to weigh-in...but just a heads up: The Braid by Frost is scheduled for August 21st.

Jim West said...

I absolutely loved this book! It was one of my favorites so far this summer. I agree the reading was rather easy, but the reading level is not always what is most important, but what you can get out of the story and learn from it. The way the author handled perspective was awesome!! (two children on opposite sides of the fence, in opposite worlds, slowly learning about the others experience) I enjoyed the fact that the kids were naive, and that the reader learned with them. I can see how parents would shield and hide the truth about these terrible things from their kids, for right or for wrong.

The ending I had not expected, but was curious when he put the pajamas on and crossed the fence. The way Bruno told the boy that they were best friends at the very end, and then they were killed was very sad, but moving none the less.

I just thought this book was amazing, a true page turner, that involked many emotions in the reader. I could not put it down!!!