#83. Holes by Louis Sachar
Holes is a young adult mystery novel written in 1998 by Louis Sachar and was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux . It took him a year and a half to write this book, and Holes is probably his most successful book. It’s about a boy who seemingly has a string of bad luck, a curse stemming back to an unfulfilled promise by his “no-good-dirty-pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather”. Circumstances find the protagonist Stanley Yelnats in the wrong place at the wrong time, and with a pair of stolen sneakers when the police find him. Faced with the snap decision between Camp Green Lake and juvenile detention, Stanley chooses “camp”. The warden makes the “campers” dig holes to “build character”, but it quickly becomes evident that there’s more going on at Camp Green Lake than building character. They are digging 5×5 holes, and the warden is searching for something. Stanley must survive the antagonist, the rugged conditions at Camp Green Lake, and rise against this family curse and the people of the camp to secure his freedom, from the camp and from the curse. Interestingly, the working title was Wrong Place, Wrong Time, Wrong Kid. The name Holes seems to be more appropriate for the novel, as there are plenty of holes in the story. The boys must dig holes at Camp Green Lake, there are “holes” in Stanley’s lonely unhappy life, and the narrator tells us:
“You will have to fill in the holes yourself.” (in reference to tidying up the story, Part 3, Filling In the Holes, page 231, para. 1)
We gather from this statement that all the holes need to be filled in for a happy ending.
The story is told from an omniscient uninvolved narrator who shifts between 3 time periods: the present time of Stanley’s life (late 1990’s), the life time of Kate Barlow (late 1800’s Texas), and the life time of Elya Yelnats, Stanley’s great-great-grandfather (1800’s Latvia). When speaking of the present, it unravels like an adventure, and the narrator tells the storyline mostly, but not exclusively, from Stanley’s point of view, his thoughts, and his actions. The historical aspects are presented like a core of old folk tales, a spool for this adventure to be wrapped around. Ever so slowly, the tale unravels and exposes itself for the viewing pleasure. By injecting dark humor and irony into the narration, readers are encouraged to form their own opinion and conclusions to the events being presented. This triple storyline can be difficult for some readers to accept, creating a slow read, until the historical pieces fall into place.
The power of fate is probably the most influential theme of this story. There are too many “coincidences” in the story to allow them to remain titled as such. Was it coincidence that brought Stanley and Zero together, two names that were entwined in history, two people that needed each other to set all records straight? Can we call it coincidence when Stanley slipped in the mud and found the onions that ultimately cured Zero and protected the boys from the yellow-spotted lizards? Wasn’t it more than coincidence that Kate Barlow robbed Stanley’s great-great-grandfather and buried all the “treasure” in the case with his name on it? Are you still prepared to give credit to coincidence that Stanley found that case? I think it’s clear that fate played a big part to bring these two names together to fulfill the promise that was left uncompleted by Elya.
The importance of history in everyday life is a theme that should be prevalent today, but is often ignored. Had Zero and Stanley known their history, specifically their family history, they may have put “two and two” together. As the reader, we are only aware of the history that the narrator provides, just as Stanley and Zero are only privy to the history their families have passed down to them. It is intriguing that both know the folk song ditty without questioning it further. Fortunately, Stanley recalls the tale of his grandfather being robbed and surviving at “God’s thumb”, as this is the key to the survival of the boys after their escape. The readers are privileged to know the history of Kate and Sam, and learn from that history that after the boys find the loot, that they are actually safe from the yellow-spotted lizards due to all the onions they ingested.
Laced throughout the book are the benefits of friendship, true and false as they may be. Elya Yelnats had a true friendship with Madame Zeroni, and he betrays her in his humiliation of unreturned love. The “curse” is activated at this betrayal and pursues the Yelnats family throughout the pages of history. The very real friendship between the descendants, Stanley and Zero, allows the boys to survive their escape, and ultimately bring the circle to a close. X-ray’s type of friendship was grown in threats and selfishness, and hence did not bear the desired results. Camp Green Lake warden and staff operate under a system of threats and rewards, but accomplish nothing beyond cultivating the same behavior as we say in X-ray. Stanley and Zero both learned that through real friendship a person can find happiness and satisfaction and earned them their freedom and fortunes.
Cruelty runs rampant throughout Holes, and Sachar is quite successful in relaying the evidence of the destructive nature of it throughout the tale. The characters presented are often struggling with situations where they are not able to possess complete knowledge to successfully navigate their particular circumstances. We learn quickly not to judge people based on first presentation. Once we know their full stories, we are bound to step back and form different opinions more suitably rooted in sympathy. While Kate Barlow was an outlaw who robbed and murdered, she started out as a warm and sincere school teacher whose life was completely destroyed by townsfolk who murdered her love interest because of his race, killed his beloved mule, burned her school, and disrespected her person. She could not have known how violently the citizens would react to the kiss between her and Sam. As a result of the cruelty experience, Katherine Barlow became “Kissin’ Kate Barlow” and sought her revenge. We hear the family refer to Elya Yelnats as a “no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather”, when in actuality, he broke the promise accidentally after reeling from a brutal unreciprocated proposition of love. Elya could not see that Myra Menke, the girl he fell in love with, was as empty upstairs as store shelves in the south after the word snow was mentioned. As a result of this blunder, he forgets to carry Madame Zeroni up the mountain, and the curse is exacted on his head and that of his descendants. Zero is presumed by the Warden and guards to be stupid because he cannot read when actually he is incredibly intelligent and math whiz. He quietly endures the taunting and misconceptions from people who misjudged his intelligence. But there comes a time when he can tolerate no more, and he lashes out at Mr. Pendanski smashing the counselor in the face with a shovel before escaping. Even the warden is an example of the cyclic damage of cruelty. As a child, she was forced to dig holes to find the loot, “every weekend and holiday. […] Even on Christmas.” (page 206, para. 5) We also witness the passing of cruelty when Mr. Sir received punishment from the Warden, he in turn unjustly punishes Stanley. Society has this preconceived idea that if you tell the truth you won’t get into any trouble, and only criminals plead the 5th. Stanley’s mother believed that if he just told the truth, everything would be fine. As we, the readers, know, it doesn’t happen like that very often, as the tale showed us. This novel challenges those stereotypes and encourages the readers to look deeper within people, only taking their facade and initial presentation in consideration and conjunction with the real person beneath all those layers.
In Holes, the onions symbolize everything that is good and pure in the story. Sam sells the onions in all forms to fight off many illnesses and dangers, and, in the present, they are pivotal in the survival of Stanley and Zero. They are unknowingly used to expel the bad bacteria that plagued Zero and restores him to health. They also, once ingested, help thwart bites by the yellow-spotted lizards. The holes, on the other hand, come to symbolize everything that is negative or bad at Camp Green Lake. Several times, the warden and the “guidance counselors” referred to the holes as graves. These holes were a refuge for rattlesnakes, scorpions and the yellow-spotted lizards, and after the boys dig them, they spit into them. Remember that these holes are dug to build the boys’ character, and therefore are a form of punishment to them. While a hole stops Stanley from taking the truck to rescue Zero, he would have missed his friend hidden underneath Sam’s old boat in the middle of the dry lake bed. The biggest metaphoric hole of all is Stanley’s life. Being overweight and having a low self-esteem courted Stanley to his position of a misfit and a target for school bullies like Derrick Dunne. It is through friendship and a sense of belonging that Stanley fills in his “hole”.
It was the inspiration of the movie Holes, a 2003 Walt Disney Picture. Henry Winkler played Stanley’s father and Shia LeBeouf, of Transformers, played Stanley. Sachar wrote the screenplay. This Walden Media production was the last feature film that actor Scott Plank performed in, as the character Trout Walker. Mr. Plank succumbed to injuries sustained in an automobile accident in Los Angeles, and the movie was dedicated to his memory.
U.S. National Book Award for Young People’s Literature – 1998
Boston Globe’s Horn Book Award – 1999
New York Times Book Review Notable Children’s Book of the Year
ALA Best Book for Young Adults ALA Notable Children’s Book ALA Quick Pick for Young Adults NCTE Notable Children’s Book in the Language Arts
Newberry Medal – 1999
2003 BBC Big Read – #83
2011 BBC Top 100 Books List – #83
A Christopher Award for Juvenile Fiction
A Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books Blue Ribbon Book
A School Library Journal Best Book of the Year
A Publishers Weekly Notable Children’s Book of the Year
A Publishers Weekly Bestseller
A Horn Book Fanfare Title
A Riverbank Review 1999 Children’s Book of Distinction A New York Public Library Children’s Book of 1998-100 Titles for Reading and Sharing
A Texas Lone Star Award Nominee
A NECBA Fall List Title