Tuesday, February 5, 2013

It's Either About a Prison or the Holocaust

...said my roommate when I told her I was reading the book The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, by John Boyne. If you don't want to know whether it is about prison or the Holocaust, I recommend you stop reading my post (although, don't worry, I won't give anything else away). But I definitely recommend the book!

It is, of course, about the Holocaust. I stumbled upon this book when I saw the entire 8th grade class carrying it around school. I was convinced to read it when I caught one of my 8th graders reading it during one of MY lessons. I thought to myself, "Either I'm a boring teacher, or that book is really good." I knew the former couldn't be true, so I assumed the latter and decided to mosey downstairs during my plan to borrow one of those books from the English room.

I borrowed the book on a Monday and I finished it after school that Wednesday. Granted it is only 277 pages, but I'm a teacher and a grad student and usually get angry when I see people in coffee shops reading for fun because I wish I had the time. Apparently, for the right book, I do.

Like other Holocaust literature (The Diary of Anne Frank, Number the Stars, The Book Thief, etc), the book contains the common themes of humanizing the de-humanized, re-discovering the horrors from a unique perspective, juxtaposing innocence and evil, forming and breaking relationships, realizing we need to open our eyes to the "holocausts" of our time, etc.

The book is told from the perspective of a 9 year-old boy, Bruno, whose dad is a commander at the  concentration camp his family moves in next to. We get to see the world from the mind of Bruno,  not an ignorant mind, just formed by everything he is familiar with- his parents and annoying sister, his three best friends, his bustling city, his housemaids- there is no familiarity with anything remotely related to the Holocaust, so he simply does not have a clue to what is happening at the place he sees across the fence when he looks outside of his window. This perspective creates one of the most powerful themes from the book, which, as stated in the author's note, is misconception and misunderstanding. My English studies mind appreciated the child-like perspective, how the writing style nearly perfectly matched that, and all of those other previously mentioned deep themes, but the part my emotional self appreciated the most was the simple theme of friendship (read: at the first mention of best friends I was crying on the couch).

As I was reading this book, my mind kept traveling back to my visit to Auschwitz my junior year of college. I still think back on this with very puzzling memories. The day our school visited was a sunny day and my impression of Auschwitz was that of a place where I could see kids playing in the brick streets surrounded by the brick buildings. Our tour included stops like seeing the gas chambers, piles of shoes and clothes, and the cells. I knew I should be sad and moved, but I was either so exhausted or so emotionally drained that I could hardly given any emotional response, even when Fr. Dave made me stand in a cell with three other people. It wasn't until we went to see an art room filled with drawing created by someone who lived at the concentration camp. It wasn't the incredibly skeleton-like bodies or the hollow faces that got me, but the fact that the pictures portrayed friendship. I remember standing in the room surrounded by pictures of bony figures, looking around at my friends next to me, and, again, that was the point I lost it with the tears.

So, when you are looking for a quick, meaningful read, this would be a good book to pick up. Like a visit to Auschwitz, the horrors of the Holocaust are clear in the story, but like the art I saw on my trip, even more clear is the remaining presence of love and friendship.

1 comment:

  1. I've heard it is good, unfortunately someone spoiled the ending for me! I enjoyed your post about it though!!!