My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Even though this book is about the Holocaust and Auschwitz there is a persistent, deliberate sense of censorship that haunts the narrative and stops us from truly experiencing the horrors of the concentration camp. This will either have one of two effects on the reader: either they will be attracted to this ‘lighter’ way of story-telling, or they will be completely put off by it.
The story is about Bruno, a nine-year old boy living in Berlin with his wealthy family, who comes home one day from school to find they are moving to a place called ‘Out-With’. Bruno is greatly disappointed and mourns the fact that he will no longer be able to play at exploring the nooks and crannies of the grand, mahogany rooms. This tumultuous change in family life is all due to his father’s promotion, which coincided with a personal visit from a short, cold-mannered and rather rude man known as ‘the Fury’.
Bruno resents the visit and the ensuing developments that cause his family to move, and when they do eventually arrive at their new home his disappointment grows into despair. ‘Out-With’ turns out to be a desolate place in the middle of nowhere and no place for a young adventurous boy to grow up. Even his mother objects and is uneasy with their surroundings; which he knows only because he hears his parents arguing about it.
With no friends to play with and no other houses for miles around, Bruno tries to make the best of things; however it doesn’t take long before Bruno’s inquisitive nature gets the better of him and he discovers that there are people living nearby. People living in a high-walled building; people who walk around listlessly wearing nothing but blue striped pyjamas. Bruno’s imagination is ignited and it is not long before he finds a way to reach this place and befriend a boy, just like him, who has had to leave his home behind because of the ‘Fury’.
What ensues is a friendship that destroys ethnic and religious boundaries and which ends in a final, cruel twist of fate.
Boyne warns us that this is ultimately a fable, a cautionary tale and that it is not true; even though the rare moments when we do get a glimpse of the horrors of Auschwitz goes to show that Boyne stays faithful to real accounts of that time.
However, I assume Boyne chose to write the story through the eyes of a nine-year-old in order to cultivate a more innocent, ‘fable-like’ approach. And indeed this not only leaks into the perspective, but also into the language of the characters in the form of ‘Out-With’ and ‘the Fury’. This, and other forms of censorship/ banning of ‘bad’ words are both a blessing and a curse. I initially read this book with a group of Year 8 students, and appreciated the fact that the story was clean and straight-forward to read. It also helped that they had to do a little thinking to figure out who ‘the Fury’ was and what ‘Out-With’ meant. However, I couldn’t help smiling when some more ‘awake’ readers complained that the main character was a little dumb. My twelve-year olds had touched on a very good point.
While Boyne was trying to make a terrible account about WW2 and concentration camps more accessible for younger children; he has also managed to ‘lobotimize’ it too. From experience I (and my year 8′s) know that most 9 year-olds are not as ignorant as the way Bruno is portrayed to be in the novel. They are the exact opposite: inquisitive and highly precocious. Children at that age learn things almost by osmosis and I feel (like my students) that Boyne made a grave mistake when dumbing his main character down like that.
If you are looking for an ideal book for your 11-13 year old that will tie in with their History classes and is a little more conservative, then this is the perfect book. However I would suggest that reading together would be the best, as then issues and questions can be raised about the narrative, who knows, you might be surprised about the intelligent responses you get as I did.
- The Absolutist by John Boyne: December Book Club Choice (smartgirlsbookclub.wordpress.com)
- Top Ten Books About The Impact of War (trishadm.wordpress.com)
- Great Summer Reads For Children/Teens (blogs.abc.net.au)
- A look at books – Irish gems of short stories, novels and history (irishcentral.com)