This is a story about a most unlikely friendship between two boys, Bruno and Shmuel, wonderfully told by author John Boyne. The story is initially set in Berlin, 1942. Bruno is very happy in Berlin, surrounded by his three best friends for life, and his family, most notably his “hopeless case” of a sister, Gretel. Bruno is the son of a Nazi commandant. When duty calls, Bruno and his family are uprooted and moved to a place Bruno believes is called Out-With. His father has been placed in charge of the prison camp Auschwitz. It is here that the unlikely friendship begins. The author does a wonderful job of transporting the reader to Bruno’s world, but it is important to remember that this work is a historical fiction, a fable written for children – with adult appeal.
The primary criticism of this book by others is that Bruno, the main character, is too naive, or ignorant, or perhaps too innocent to be believable. As I read the book, I remembered watching a newscast in the early ‘70s that mentioned casualties caused by guerrilla warfare in Vietnam. My brother who would have been about the same age as Bruno, wondered aloud why we were fighting gorillas anyway. Innocence isn’t just lost, it’s sometimes forgotten.
There is a scene in which Bruno sees dozens, perhaps hundreds of people boarding train cars on a train headed in the same direction as his. His train car is relatively empty and it occurs to him that he should tell the folks boarding the other train they need only join him in his rail car if they’d like more room, but in the end he thinks better of it. In hindsight and with the benefit of history on the reader’s side it is easy to understand that these people and Bruno are heading to two entirely different places. As a nine year old boy mostly protected from the events going on around him, his perspective, though somewhat self-centered is still believable. I found Bruno’s innocence to be a most effective means by which to introduce young readers to the atrocities of the Holocaust in a most human way.
I suspect this story will likely prompt a number of questions. It is an introduction of sorts, and as such, an excellent book to read along with your child.