I read Holes, by Louis Sachar, in a college YA literature class, and since then it’s been one of my favorite books ever. I probably should have saved it for later this year in case I hit a slump and needed a book I knew I liked, but I just couldn’t wait! It was calling to me.
Holes is the story of Stanley Yelnats, an overweight boy in Texas convicted of a crime he didn’t commit and sent to Camp Green Lake for 18 months of discipline. On Stanley’s arrival, he discovers that the lake has long ago dried up, leaving a vast hot desert. The boys at the camp are forced to dig a hole five feet deep and five feet in diameter every day; I’d say “rain or shine,” but it never rains in Camp Green Lake. The only way to get a day off is to find “something interesting,” and Stanley soon learns that the boys aren’t just digging to improve their character. The Warden is looking for something special that has been buried in the dirt of the lake.
One of the best elements of this book is the interweaving of many different stories. Our third-person narrator frequently shifts away from Stanley’s present at Camp Green Lake to tell us not only stories from his past but also stories from his family’s history and Green Lake’s history. We see what happened to Stanley’s great-great-grandfather Elya Yelnats in Latvia, and why this makes the Yelnats family believe they are cursed. We learn about Elya’s son Stanley being robbed in the Texas desert and left for dead. We see Green Lake 110 years ago, when it was a town on the shore of the biggest lake in Texas and home to Katherine Barlow the schoolteacher, Sam the onion man, and the villainous Trout Walker. We also watch the great outlaw Kissin’ Kate Barlow meet her end.
The immediate benefit of all these mingling stories is that we readers aren’t stuck at dusty, hot Camp Green Lake the entire time; we get to see Stanley’s home, a historic town by a lake, and a beautiful mountain stream. Another plus is that while Sachar snugly fits these stories together like a jigsaw puzzle, he leaves a few pieces for us readers to put in ourselves. He doesn’t tell us everything—he gives us a little mental work to do, some little mysteries to solve, and that makes the story even more fascinating.
Best of all are the thoughtful questions these stories raise for book clubs and school classes to discuss together, or for kids to tangle with on their own. Stanley believes he and his family were cursed by the actions of his “no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather,” and later in the book he feels that perhaps instead it was his destiny to come to Camp Green Lake. But many of the events in the book occur because of choices that he and the other characters make, and if they hadn’t made them, the outcome of the book—and their lives—would have been much different. Then again, we also see that the characters are very deeply affected by the actions of past characters; Kate Barlow, Sam the onion man, and even Stanley’s great-grandfather are directly responsible for things that happen to Stanley, his friend Zero, the Warden, and everyone else.
Are the characters ruled by fate, or by their own actions? The book gives no answers; it’s up to the reader to decide. Early in the book, Mr. Pendanski, one of the counselors, tells Stanley, “You’re the reason you are here. You’re responsible for yourself. You messed up your life and it’s up to you to fix it. No one else is going to do it for you—for any of you.” We have all heard this idea of personal responsibility before, but we also know that Stanley really didn’t mess up his life, really didn’t commit the crime for which he was convicted. This moment is a microcosm of Holes. Is Stanely there because of the curse, or destiny, or coincidence? There is plenty of evidence to argue either answer, or rather, for each reader to find an answer that works for him or her.
Another tantalizing issue in the book is that of villains. Some of the villains in the story are clearly bad, but others elicit conflicting feelings in the reader. The Warden is at different times kind, intimidating, terrifying, and pitiable. Mr. Pendanski is friendly, but his treatment of Zero is cruel. Kissin’ Kate Barlow is the best example of a shades-of-gray villain: she begins as Miss Katherine Barlow, a highly likeable schoolteacher, and we hurt with her when tragedy strikes. But her transformation into murderous outlaw is uncomfortable. We understand why she does what she does…but what she’s doing is robbing and committing murder.
What makes a person bad or good? Where do we draw the line? These questions become even more difficult to answer when we consider that our main characters are a group of juvenile delinquents. They have done wrong and are being punished. Yet we cheer for them and see them as Good Guys, oppressed by the Bad Guy counselors. The boys’ Good Guy status is jeopardized, however, by their occasional mistreatment of Stanley. Even Stanley isn’t always a Good Guy: he refuses to teach Zero to read, with the lame excuse that digging tires him. There’s plenty of fodder for thought and discussion in this book about what makes a person good or bad, or if we can even evaluate people with these absolute terms.
Another great element of this book is that it also addresses racial issues. The boys in Stanley’s tent are black, white, and Hispanic, and for the most part, this doesn’t figure into their interactions and relationships. But it becomes an issue when Zero begins to spend an hour each day digging in Stanley’s hole. This would inevitably frustrate the other boys, but since Stanley is white and Zero is black, they begin to taunt the pair, asking if Zero is Stanley’s slave. We readers know this isn’t the case, but we can also see from the other boys’ point of view, and it doesn’t look good. This scene gets interrupted by other events, and Sachar doesn’t give the group of boys a resolution to this conflict, smartly leaving it up to the readers to think about.
The characters in the erstwhile town of Green Lake have a bigger problem with race, however. When Sam the onion man, who is black, and Katherine the schoolteacher, who is white, express their love with a kiss, the consequences are tragic. It is very easy for the reader to see how wrong it is to judge people by the color of their skin, especially when in earlier scenes we see the townspeople clamoring to do business with Sam and to learn from Katherine regardless of race. Yet Sachar is not heavy-handed, and once again leaves it up to the reader to think about. “You make the decision,” the narrator says. “Whom did God punish?”
Sachar’s invitation to his readers to explore so many important issues brings to mind a line in the definitions of the Newbery terms. In defining the “for children” part of “the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children,” the ALSC says, “The book displays respect for children’s understandings, abilities, and appreciations.” This is enormously true of Holes. The plot may be intricate, but it is deftly written and easy for a young reader to follow. The characters and their dilemmas may be full of gray areas, but the book is never preachy and gives readers the freedom to make their own decisions. Also, while my review concentrates on the more serious and thought-provoking aspects of the book, it’s still a lot of fun to read. There’s plenty to attract a child reader: adventure, stinky shoes, singing to a pig, funny nicknames, deadly lizards, and the fascination of just plain digging a hole (“Every kid in the world wants to dig a great big hole,” says Stanley’s tentmate X-Ray). This book is most definitely a distinguished contribution to American literature for children. The theme, plot, characters, and setting are all well-developed, thoughtful, beautifully written, and entertaining to read.
You might like this book if you like…
- Survival stories, especially ones that take place in the desert
- Stories about the Wild West
- Contemporary fiction with modern-day kids and modern-day problems
- A touch of fantasy, or to put it a different way, exercising your “willing suspension of disbelief”
- A mix of humor and seriousness
- Mostly male characters (this is a bit of a “guy” book, but girls can definitely still fully appreciate it.)
- A realistic, imperfect main character
- The Holes movie
- A little bit of romance
- Buried treasure
- Stories in which a character learns to read
P.S. I decided to take this opportunity to finally watch the movie version of Holes from 2003. I was not disappointed! I usually try to view books and movies-from-books as separate stories told in different languages, but it’s often unavoidable to decide that one incarnation is better than the other. Gladly, that’s not the case with Holes; it’s an excellent movie that tells the story of Sachar’s book in its own way, with its own strengths. This is probably because Sachar also wrote the screenplay, and clearly his storytelling abilities extend beyond the novel format. He made some alterations to certain details in the story, but they are minor, and they suit the big screen translation well. I felt like I was watching the book come to life, like I was seeing everything I’d created in my imagination play out before my eyes. I think this is my favorite book-to-movie experience yet.