(Image from Barnes & Noble)
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas began with a vision: author John Boyne saw "one single image, of two boys sitting on either side of a fence, having a conversation. And I knew where that fence was. I knew those two boys really shouldn't be there" (from author interview, p. 4). The fence forms a barrier between the Commandant's home and the Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz. The boys are Bruno, the 9-year-old Commandant's son, and Shmuel, a 9-year-old Jewish prisoner. Though divided by nationality, culture and a strong fence, the boys form an unlikely and dangerous friendship.
Both of the boys have been brought to Auschwitz against their will. Bruno liked his life in Berlin - he had a big house, 3 best friends, and plenty of space for exploring. When the "Fury" (Fuhrer) appoints Bruno's father to take over command at "Out-With" (Bruno's word for Auschwitz), the family has little choice but to comply. Like his mother, Bruno is not pleased with the move, especially when he sees the "empty, desolate place" (11) that is to be his new home. The area feels cold and unfriendly - worse, there are no other houses nearby, and thus no other children with whom to play. Shmuel, of course, has been forcefully removed from his home and corralled in the camp like all the other Jews. Although Bruno despises his new home, he finds Shmuel's endlessly fascinating. He longs to wear his pajamas all day and play with the crowds of children on the other side of the fence. In his innocence and ignorance, Bruno is even a little insulted that Shmuel has not yet invited him over to tea.
Although Bruno knows he is not supposed to go near the fence, he really can't understand why. How can an explorer like himself resist such an adventure, anyway? Shmuel's a true friend, and Bruno enjoys bringing him food and listening to his stories. They are united in their loathing of sadistic Lieutenant Kotler, but Bruno can't fathom why Shmuel would dislike his father. After all, the Commandant is a great and powerful man. When Shmuel arrives at the fence, frantic because his father has disappeared, Bruno suggests they appeal to the Commandant for help. Even after spending long hours with his friend, Bruno does not understand why Shmuel would veto the idea. Still, he likes Shmuel's suggestion better - the Jew will smuggle an extra pair of striped pajamas through the fence, Bruno will don his costume, sneak under the fence, and help Shmuel find his father. The guileless Bruno has no idea the kind of danger he's facing as he happily digs under the fence, ready to experience his grandest adventure yet.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is an astounding story that juxtaposes childlike innocence with the worst kind of terror imaginable. Bruno's inability to believe the truth, even when he's seeing it with his own eyes, underscores the absolute horror of the Holocaust. The shocking ending hammers home the story's moral: In the end, regardless of race, color, or creed, we are all the same. Brilliant, beautiful and touching, this is a book that will get under your skin and stay there, long after you've turned the last page.
(I haven't seen the movie yet, but it looks excellent. You can see the trailer here.)