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Pierrot Fischer, later Pieter, is half French and half German and spends the first part of his childhood in Paris. He has a best friend who is Jewish, but doesn’t realise this and the significance of it. His father, a great War veteran, commits suicide and his mother dies of TB. The Jewish family will not take him in – partly because they can’t afford to and partly because they think it will be dangerous for him. He goes first to an orphanage in Orleans and then his German aunt finds out about him. She happens to work at Hitler’s retreat, the Berghof in the Obersalzberg of the Bavarian Alps near Berchtesgaden. Pieter becomes a Nazi and is quite nasty with it. His Aunt Beatrix and her lover, Ernst, the chauffeur are executed when they try to poison Hitler. Pieter begins to see that what he has become is wrong but only when the Germans are losing World War II and Hitler and the others with him in the bunker in Berlin kill themselves and when he himself is taken prisoner by the liberating soldiers. He eventually finds his old school friend from Paris, Anshel Bronstein, who has become a writer. Bizarrely at this point John Boyne switches from a close third person narrative to first person.
As with The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, (the BBC film of which was first broadcast after the watershed) it is difficult to really pinpoint a reader. Pierrot is seven at the beginning of the story and at the end we see Pierrot / Pieter as a grown man. Before the epilogue he is eighteen and wears a soldier’s uniform but isn’t ever involved in active combat. There is a scene near the end of the story where he almost rapes the girl he would like to have as a girlfriend. Yet this would not be too startling for the younger reader as the scene is quite subtle. Clearer is his sense of entitlement that his Nazi upbringing has created.
It’s quite hard also to assess the impact on a reader, again as is the case with The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas; adults reading the text know what is happening. Boyne writes very much form Pierrot’s / Pieter’s point of view and we see everything through an innocent boy’s eyes. When he is transcribing for Hitler what some important Nazi figures discuss in a meeting, he queries why the showers in the new camps will not have water. However, once we get to the end of the story Pieter refers to Buchenwald, Dachau, Auschwitz and the Geneva Convention as though the readers would perfectly understand this.
Pierrot changes rather too quickly perhaps into a Nazi and then rather too quickly away from these dangerous ideals.
Nevertheless, the book is well written, engaging and gives the opportunity for some meaningful discussion of many important issues.