First Lines: One afternoon, when Bruno came home from school, he was surprised to find Maria, the family’s maid–who always kept her head bowed and never looked up from the carpet–standing in his bedroom, pulling all his belongings out of the wardrobe and packing them in four large wooden crates, even the things he’d hidden at the back that belonged to him and were nobody else’s business.
Phew! That was a long first line! (That’s all one sentence!) Anyway, I wouldn’t have normally read this book except for the fact that my students are in the middle of a Holocaust unit and will likely be reading this soon. Besides, this is one of those books it seems like most people have read (or claim to have read).
When Bruno comes home from school one day, he finds his world turned upside down. His father has been promoted, which means his family has to leave their Berlin home for a home in the middle of nowhere. Bruno has no one to play with anymore, and everyone around seems to be a soldier like his father or on the other side of a tall fence. Being an explorer, Bruno decides to investigate this fence and meets a boy his age whose life is very different from his own. Their friendship gives Bruno hope that his new home won’t be so bad…but their friendship may have devastating consequences for them both…
Before I get too far into this review, I want to say that I knew the ending before I read it. A student of mine spoiled it before I ever thought I’d be reading this book. So, for me, there was no suspense as to what would happen.
Mostly, I just thought this book was ok. I liked it, but it didn’t blow me away, not like other Holocaust books have (ahem The Book Thief).
In the beginning, I liked Bruno’s innocence. The Holocaust is full of jaded children who grew up way too fast, but then there’s Bruno who thinks that Hitler is called “The Fury” instead of “The Fuhrer.” As the story went on, it did start to feel a little over-the-top and hard to believe. Like how it seemed nearly impossible that Bruno, the son of a German commander, wouldn’t have understood who Jews were or the simple fact that the Germans hated them. This pulled me out of the story. I read in an interview in the back of my book that the author made Bruno incredibly innocent on purpose. So while it was intentional (and I’m cool with that as a writing choice), it just didn’t work for me. It just made his character seem like a 4-year-old rather than a 9-year-old.
And, granted, it’s been a long time since I’ve spent a decent amount of time around a 9-year-old, but Bruno seemed to almost intentionally misunderstand what was going on around him. Even when talking to Shmuel, Bruno was almost rude and willfully ignorant of what Shmuel was trying to tell him. There were a few times that Shmuel couldn’t have spelled it out any plainer and Bruno still seemed oblivious. It just got irritating.
I did like that it was a different kind of Holocaust story. It’s a small child’s perspective, where hatred of a race seems ridiculous. It’s a small child’s perspective on the atrocities we now look back on with sadness, anger, disgust, and despair. Too many small children got swept up in this tidal wave of hatred, and this was just one attempt at showing that story. It was an interesting attempt, even if I didn’t quite like it.
I think part of the problem was that it was such a short book, and I never felt like I connected with the characters. Bruno had a tendency to annoy me and Shmuel seemed to barely be in the story at all. The only character we could have connected with was Bruno, really. I never felt like I really got a foothold in the story.
Basically, this book feels like most other Holocaust books you’ve probably read before, but more tame. It never blatantly mentions any of the atrocities, though it does hint at some. It’s not the best Holocaust read or the one I would recommend first, but it was alright.