The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne (David Fickling Books, 2006)

In a mere 200 pages, John Boyne stunningly captures both the best and worst sides of humanity. This deceptively simple fable portrays the horrors of the Holocaust through the innocent eyes of its nine-year-old protagonist, Bruno, the son of a commanding Nazi officer. 

Bruno knows little about the war – and nothing about the persecution of the Jews – when he arrives at Auschwitz. He only knows that his family has been forced to leave their home in Berlin on account of his father’s job. He finds himself in an isolated town, living in a cheerless house that borders something very mysterious. On the other side of a tall, barbed-wire fence, he sees hundreds of men, from young boys to the elderly, all wearing identical striped pyjamas and forlorn expressions. When Bruno asks about his new neighbors, he is told to ignore them, that they really aren’t “people at all.”

Despite his father’s explicit instructions, Bruno walks along the fence for hours each day and befriends a boy on the other side named Shmuel. Over the course of a year, the two boys meet nearly every day, although Bruno cannot understand why they can never be on the same side of the fence to play.

The stark juxtaposition of the narrator’s guileless, childlike observations with the appalling realities of Auschwitz and World War II make this book utterly unique and unforgettable. Shmuel and Bruno form a lasting, affectionate friendship, unsullied by the prejudices tearing their families apart. In viewing the Holocaust through Bruno’s perspective, the reader grapples with the complexity of the human condition, the atrocities of war, and the evil that conceived of and permitted the Holocaust to occur. In writing The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Boyne challenges us all to closely examine ourselves, to recognize our common humanity, and to guard vigilantly against anything like the Holocaust from ever happening again.

In an age rife with divisiveness, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is particularly relevant for Christian audiences. It urges us to recognize all people as bearers of the Imago Dei and reminds us, in hauntingly simple prose, that we must become like little children in order to possess the Kingdom.

Note: This review uses the original UK spelling of “pyjamas.” US editions have changed the title to reflect the common American spelling of “pajamas.”

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