John Boyne’s The Boy at the Top of the Mountain (Grades 5-9) is an insightful and thought-provoking narrative that explores the atmosphere of Germany of the 1930s-40s and the rise of Hitler through the lens of an impressionable boy as he grows into a young man. Pierrot spends his young life in France with his French mother and German father, who suffers from psychological distress that manifests itself in both rage and alcohol abuse. When both of his parents prematurely lose their lives, he is taken first to an orphanage in France and then to live with his only surviving relative, Aunt Beatrix. Beatrix is the housekeeper for a wealthy German estate that is one of the residences of Adolf Hitler. In order to keep her nephew as safe as possible in the world’s changing climate, she takes him into her care; when she asks that he go by the name Pieter to make him more acceptable to the Fuhrer, she is not yet aware just how much the boy will embody that moniker.

Relatable Point of View

Telling the story from the evolving perspective of a boy from the ages of 7 to 16 proves to be a very effective way for Boyne to recount these events as it not only makes for an age-appropriate read for middle school students, but also gives readers the vantage point of an impressionable young man through which they can experience the measured transformation of Hitler and the Nazi party.  Pieter himself does not have an awareness of his own undoing, but the gradual decline in his treatment of others is noted by other characters in the novel, which provides readers a rich opportunity for meaningful discussion and observation.

Privileged Information

Furthermore, because of his unique position, Pieter is party to some privileged interactions that reveal a great deal about Hitler’s persona as well as his plans and actions. Pieter is a note-taker in the meeting with Hitler and Nazi officers at which the design and implementation of the concentration camps is discussed; also, Hitler tells Pieter of his abhorrence of mixed-breed dogs, Pieter notes to his aunt how he admires Hitler’s strong sense of national pride, and it is made clear that wearing the uniform of the Hitler Youth is such a source of confidence for Pieter. Each of these pieces of information contribute to the forming of a more well-defined picture of how and why Adolf Hitler was able to gain power in Germany and beyond.

Middle Grade Discussion Opportunities

While the direct relationship between Pieter and Hitler remains the focus of the story, various supporting characters offer alternative points of view. Each provides a different reaction to and interaction with both Hitler and Pieter which could benefit a study or discussion of the complex nature of Hitler’s ability to amass such a strong following for such unthinkable actions. Opportunities like this one that can lead to rich discussion and reflection appear in abundance throughout the story. For this reason as well as the careful handling of an important subject that is thoughtfully and aptly presented at a level appropriate for the middle school student, The Boy at the Top of the Mountain is a treasure for students and teachers alike.

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