Nine-year-old Bruno has always loved adventure but
doesn't know what to make of it when one afternoon he
returns home from school and finds Maria, his family's maid, stacking his belongings into a crate. Bruno's Commandant father
tells him that the family will be relocating to "Out-With."
Bruno is reluctant to leave Berlin behind; he really loves his three best friends, Karl, Daniel and Martin. And he knows he's going to miss the vibrant street life, shops, and fruit and vegetable stalls.
At Out-With, everything around Bruno feels empty and cold as if he
were in the loneliest place in the world. The gray-skinned servants are too skinny and only ever speak to one another in whispering voices. And there's something about the new house that makes Bruno think that no one
has ever laughed here. Everyone always seems so angry.
One night, a most important man called the "Fury" comes to dinner, and Bruno begins realize just how prestigious his father's job really is. An explorer at heart, Bruno becomes obsessed with what lies beyond the driveway of the house, the high barbed-wire fence, and the wooden telegraph poles; the barbed-wire bales, where Bruno can see the hard ground
occupied by huts and smokestacks and soldiers standing around in groups, laughing and joking.
From his bedroom window, Bruno can see hundreds of thin grayish people - small boys and big boys with their fathers, uncles and even grandfathers - all wearing the same clothes as
one another: a pair of gray striped pajamas with a grey striped cap on their heads. He knows there
is a life beyond wire bales and the wooden telegraph poles, perhaps even other boys he can play with.
First, however, he has to fend off the attentions of the nasty Lieutenant Kotler, who hounds him and picks on him. There's also Gretel, his truculent sister, whom he calls the "Hopeless Case" and who
finds difficulty explaining to him who all those strange people are.
One afternoon, Bruno actually meets a boy sitting on the other side of the fence. His name is Shmuel, and Bruno becomes convinced Shmuel is a boy with whom he can play with. Shmuel tells him about his mother and father, how they lived in a small flat above the store where his Papa made watches.
One day they were made to wear armbands from a special cloth with a star drawn on each one, then soldiers came to take them away and brought them to this strange, dark place. The blithely innocent Bruno just wants to hop over the fence and go exploring with Shmuel, perhaps even help him find his father who a few days ago suddenly went missing and has not returned.
While Bruno's imagination works overtime, his bland, dutiful father works the camp, supervising the orderly exterminations. Although there is a hole in the fence that a nine-year-old boy can slip through, Shmuel never tries to run away, so thoroughly is he ingrained and fearful of the nightmare taking place around him. Only Bruno can take the ultimate risk.
Bruno and Shmuel's virtuous purity provides a stark contrast to the death
all around them day after day. The prose is simple but always compelling as author John Boyne achieves the delicate balance of presenting the ordinariness of evil, the mechanical Nazi death machine as it goes about its business of annihilation and extinction.