John Boyne had great success with his deeply moving The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas. In his new World War II, Nazi- inspired novel he delivers a similar formula. It is a somewhat slow book with a punch at the end. When I say slow, I don’t mean boring, but it’s the pace at which Boyne introduces the characters to us. And this character development is critical for the story to have maximum impact. The story is mostly set in Berghof, Hitler’s refuge in the Austrian mountains. A place where we know important meetings took place and the Führer was comfortable.
Pierrot, the main character in this book, is Parisian. His mother is French; his father a German who has an untold, wretched experience of WWI. His best friend is Anshel, a deaf Jewish boy who lives in the same apartment building. The year is 1936. Already we know this is a book full of tragedy. Our knowledge of history sets the scene very well.
As paralleled by many children during this tumultuous time, Peirrot finds himself an orphan, albeit for different reasons, and eventually living with his previously unknown Aunt Beatrix, who is the housekeeper at Berghof. Life at Berghof is so different to anything he has experienced. Pierrot is soon renamed Peter; he is encouraged to ignore his letters from Anshe, and forget his French ways.
Based on well-researched historical events, the young Peter is entranced by the charm of the Führer and of the Hitler Youth Movement (particularly the uniform!). As must have been the case multiple times over, Peter is quickly transformed by the propaganda around him to develop a sense of superiority and, without anyone to check him, becomes a ruthless servant to Hitler and his cause. Such was the intoxicating environment he lived in, he betrays his only friends and remaining family.
I think what is also apparent is the subterfuge that reasonable thinking Germans must have been undertaking throughout this period of history and Boyne produces a well balanced view of the era. And shows humanity in an era and place that appears to be bereft of any.
This story might be as predictable as The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas – we know the ending right? But, what Boyne does so well is create likable, flawed characters and he exposes the challenges of being a good person when all around you are not. And how easy it is to be swayed by charismatic individuals. And the somehow, even though you know the ending, when it comes you are surprised and satisfied. It’s not as good as the The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas but the comparison is probably unfair, it is still a good historical novel for children of all ages.