Because of a curse put on his no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing great-great-grandfather, Stanley Yelnats always finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Which is how he ends up at Camp Green Lake digging very large holes, because the adults have told him it will build character and teach him how to be a good citizen.
Oh, and Camp Green Lake is not a camp. It is not green. It doesn’t have a lake. And the holes Stanley digs are not always literal. After he finds something significant in one particular spot, Stanley also digs that hole into his memory.
We learn the backstory at the beginning of Holes, a 1998 novel by Louis Sachar which takes the reader on a darkly humorous trip as Stanley reckons with his cursed past and his misplaced present. Wrongly accused of stealing the sneakers of Clyde “Sweet Feet” Livingston, a famous baseball player who got his name from having a foot fungus that made his feet smell bad, the overweight and bullied Stanley is sent to a juvenile detention center in the middle of the Texas desert. There he meets the other boys in his group — X-Ray, Squid, Armpit, Magnet, Zigzag, and Zero. Stanley is quickly given the nickname Caveman. And then there are the adults — Mr. Pendanski, a helping type who the boys call Mom, the perpetually grumpy Mr. Sir, and the Warden. Mr. Pendanski helpfully tells Stanley there is really only one rule at Camp Green Lake.
That rule? “Don’t upset the Warden.”
Written with pre-teens in mind, Holes has won the prestigious Newbery Medal, among more than 30 worldwide awards. It was made into a movie starring Sigourney Weaver as the Warden, Jon Voight as Mr. Sir, and Tim Blake Nelson as Mr. Pendanski. The book was banned by at least one school district, which only increases its cred among young readers. And more than twenty years after its publication, the book continues to delight pre-teens, teenagers, and adults. Family members had read Holes and recommended it as a good selection for my 2022 summer reading list.
Sachar’s story shifts between past and present, and the two are clearly intertwined. It becomes obvious early in the book that the Warden has the boys digging holes for reasons other than building character. She is desperate to find something — desperate enough to have her charges dig five-by-five-by-five-foot holes across a dry desert lake. Stanley decides he wants to know the secret as well. The edgy mystery unfolds in a way that is full of plot twists and danger.
We learn about racist violence in the past and the revenge of outlaw Kissin’ Kate Barlow. There is also cruelty and violence in the present, adding to the suspense. Coincidences between family history and current events keep popping up. A young boy named Zero, who everyone but Stanley dismisses as dumb, is key to unlocking the twisted tale. There’s nail polish made with rattlesnake venom; yellow-spotted lizards that can leap from the bottom of five-foot holes to devour a tarantula; stolen treasure; enough delightfully devilish nicknames to fill up a Barf Bag (yes, that’s the nickname of the boy who left just before Stanley arrives); and stinky feet.
What else could a young reader ask for!
Sachar’s way with words and his inventive storytelling skills captivated me right from the start. In the opening paragraphs he tells the reader that it is ninety-five degrees in the shade at Camp Green Lake. The only shade, however, comes from two old oak trees on the eastern edge of the “lake” that have a hammock stretched between them. The shade and the hammock are owned by the Warden and campers are forbidden to lie in the hammock. We can only imagine what might happen if a camper took that risk.
Rattlesnakes and scorpions are abundant, but “usually” you won’t die if one bites you. No, the worst thing that can happen to you at Camp Green Lake is to be bitten by a yellow-spotted lizard.
That’s the worst thing that can happen to you. You will die a slow and painful death.
If you get bitten by a yellow-spotted lizard, you might as well go into the shade of the oak trees and lie in the hammock.
There is nothing anyone can do to you anymore.
I stayed up late reading this book, laughed out loud when Zero makes an observation that leaves even the Warden speechless, and appreciated the lessons about perseverance, companionship, and overcoming both cruelty and personal history that shine through in Holes. The treasure chest of justice doesn’t always reveal itself easily, but Stanley finds it in the end.
A delightful read … for any age!
More to come…