82 pages 2 hours read

John Boyne

The Boy at The Top of the Mountain

Fiction | Novel | Middle Grade | Published in 2015

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Summary and Study Guide


John Boyne’s juvenile historical novel The Boy at the Top of the Mountain (2016, Henry Holt and Company) weaves real-life figures and events into the fictional story of a boy named Pierrot Fischer, who becomes corrupted after falling under the direct influence of the Nazi leader, Adolf Hitler. The novel’s central themes involve the conflicts and struggles of life under Nazi rule, as well as Pierrot’s move from innocence and naïveté to violence and abuse—and eventual moral restoration. Like Boyne’s widely-read earlier novel Boy in the Striped Pajamas, The Boy at the Top of the Mountain has gained critical attention, including being shortlisted for the Irish Book Awards Children’s Book of the Year, nominated for the 2017 Carnegie Medal, and awarded the German Book Prize for Young People’s Literature. At the same time, the novel has been criticized both for including scenes of stark violence and for potentially inaccurate or unrealistic representations of life under Nazi rule.

Plot Summary

The book opens by describing the life of seven-year-old Pierrot, who lives in Paris with his widowed mother Émilie. Pierrot’s German father, Wilhelm, died after being unable to deal with the trauma of his experiences as a soldier in World War I. Still, Pierrot has fond memories of him, and he grows up learning to speak both German and French. Pierrot’s best friend, Anshel Bronstein, is Jewish. Though Anshel is deaf, the two friends pass time by signing with each other and writing stories. When Émilie dies of tuberculosis, Anshel’s mother tries to take Pierrot into her home. Lacking enough money to care for him, however, she arranges for him to go to an orphanage in Orléans.

At the orphanage, Pierrot is the victim of bullying, as he had been in Paris. However, the Durand sisters, who run the orphanage, do their best to care for Pierrot. While there, Pierrot experiences his first run-in with anti-Semitism when he sees a boy at the orphanage taunted for being Jewish. His time at the orphanage ends when his aunt Beatrix (his father’s sister) tracks him down and arranges for him to come live with her in Austria.

Beatrix is the head of the house staff at Berghof, a mountain retreat that turns out to be the home of Hitler. Immediately upon arrival, Beatrix and the other Berghof staff—maids Herta and Ute, Emma the cook, and Ernst the chauffeur—warn Pierrot to shed his French identity and to never mention his Jewish friend Anshel. Beatrix even tells him to change his name to Pieter to sound more Germanic. They advise Pierrot to take these actions because they fear Hitler’s anti-Semitism, violent behavior, and cruelty could harm Pierrot.

Pierrot becomes close to Hitler despite their advice. Though he initially tries to maintain a relationship with Anshel by writing to him, and misses France, he changes once Hitler takes him under his wing. Hitler makes Pierrot a member of the Hitlerjugend, the Nazi youth organization, and indoctrinates him with his ideology. Loving the attention Hitler gives him and the power he represents, Pierrot gradually becomes corrupted. He reads Hitler’s propaganda (including Mein Kampf), adopts anti-Semitic ideas, and treats the house staff rudely.

Fearful both of what has happened to Pierrot and of the danger Hitler represents more broadly, Beatrix and Ernst become involved in a plot to poison the Nazi leader. In a dramatic scene, Pierrot reveals the plot to Hitler, and Beatrix and Ernst are executed. Nevertheless, Pierrot maintains his allegiance to Hitler. He becomes even crueler, going so far as to assault a schoolmate, Katarina. Yet, as World War II goes on and the Nazis begin to lose, life at Berghof crumbles. The house staff gradually leaves, and Hitler commits suicide. Before departing, Herta warns Pierrot that he must take responsibility for his actions if he ever hopes to make amends and recover. Pierrot remains at Berghof, alone, until American soldiers arrive and take him away to the Golden Mile Camp, where they detain Nazis. 

After his release from the camp, Pierrot spends the next several years moving from place to place across Europe. Silent about his experiences, he nevertheless feels extreme guilt. Eventually, he makes his way back to Paris, where Anshel has become a novelist. The two reunite, and Pierrot learns that Anshel held true to his values of decency and humanity, unlike Pierrot. Anshel shows Pierrot forgiveness and even agrees to write Pierrot’s story.