Dell Yearling USA paperback - Copyright 1998
cover art by Vladimir Radunsky
Book reviewed February 2006
Rating: 9/10 (Very Highly Recommended)
Review by Jackie Sachen Turner
Overweight, unpopular Stanley Yelnats (notice the palindrome) finds a cool pair of sneakers that literally fall from the sky and hit him on the head. Unfortunately, this weird bit of luck lands him in court where he is charged with stealing the famous, smelly pair of sneakers that happens to belong to famous baseball player Clyde Livingston who had just donated them for a charity auction. In court, Stanley tells the truth about how he found the shoes, or rather how the shoes found him. No one believes him, and he gets sent to Camp Green Lake -- a camp for bad boys located in the middle of a hot, dry, Texas lake.
Why is Stanley so unlucky? Blame it on Stanley's no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing great-great-grandfather, Elya Yelnats. Years ago in the old country, Elya reneged on a promise. Therefore, a gypsy placed a curse upon Elya and all his descendents. Now Stanley and his family have to deal with the curse, and Stanley's rotten luck gets him sent to Camp Green Lake where all the "campers" have an odd, exhausting chore: to dig one 5x5x5-foot hole every day in the sweltering heat.
Upon arrival, Stanley tries to fit in with his other tent-mates, all of whom have their own sensitive, hard-luck stories, touching upon topics such as illiteracy and homelessness. No first names are used by the boys, only nicknames: X-ray, Zero, Armpit, Squid, Zigzag, Magnet, and Caveman, which is Stanley's nickname. Stanley quickly discovers the pecking order and becomes an accepted member of Tent D. This honor came after Stanley allowed X-ray to take credit for an artifact Stanley found in his back-breaking, sweat-dug, 5x5x5-foot hole. The interactions of the young prisoners help develop strong characters that make for page-turning enjoyment. We find out much about each boy, some from their actions and other bits from the group counseling sessions. Young Stanley, a good kid who has compassion and fortitude, helps this motley crew in more ways than he could ever have guessed.
The adults who run Camp Green Lake don't seem to care about their young charges. Mr. Sir carries a gun, not to waste a shot on run-away kids but to gun down the poisonous yellow-spotted lizards. Mr. Pendanski, the counselor, has a softer disposition but cruelness lurks deep within him. The single-minded lady warden has a mean streak, which Stanley discovers when Mr. Sir drags him for punishment one day to her air-conditioned house. There he learns of her deadly fingernail polish -- her own concoction that she mixes with rattlesnake venom. Despite her coldness, she tends to leave the boys alone, letting the counselors and Mr. Sir dole out the discipline. All she demands is that each boy dig one hole everyday and bring her anything they might find. Stanley wonders, why dig holes? And then he figures out why.
Throughout the rich story at the desert-like Camp Green Lake, author Sachar weaves the legend of Stanley's great-great grandfather, how the curse came upon the family and stayed with them even when Elya left home and traveled to the new world. Another wild-west story also weaves within about the turn-of-the-century town of Green Lake (when there was a lake). This third mini-story follows Sam, the sweet onions and peaches peddler, and the wild west outlaw Kissin' Kate Barlow, richly coloring the pages, adding another realm of interest, and turning Sachar's story Holes into part tall tale, a pinch of magical realism, and full-of-intrigue mystery. Even with the secondary stories, Sachar cleverly ties up all the loose ends and brings each story together with an exciting climax and an epilogue that provides the readers with insights into what happens to a few characters after their Camp Green Lake experiences.
The book Holes contains some darker elements, too, which is why the novel is for children 10 and up. Some youngsters might need a bit more experience and age behind them to understand the social commentary as well as the potential scary elements such as poisonous lizards, criminal behavior, severe punishment, frustration, unfairness, and the cruelty of some adults. Sachar mentions "that he was surprised when his daughter, Sherre, who was in fourth grade when Holes came out, told him that the Warden was frightening." Despite certain scary elements, Sachar's writing method of weaving stories within stories will appeal to intermediate grade school readers and above.
After writing Holes, Louis Sachar revealed that he writes a little everyday: "I write every morning, usually for no more than two hours a day. I never talk about a book until it is finished." Apparently, he doesn't mention anything about his current writing projects even to his wife and daughter. Holes took him a year and a half to complete, with five rewrites, before sending it to his editor.
Holes is an unusually sweet book considering the content, but that's probably because Stanley's kind and simple personally shines through. Loyalty to his friend turns Stanley's life upside down and his actions make a big impact upon those around him. Charming, dark, and magical, Holes is a marvelous novel, constructed well, with every word leading the readers to a most satisfying conclusion. I highly recommend this entertaining novel.Side note -- Many readers will remember the author Louis Sachar from his Wayside School novels and Marvin Redpost series. Now Sachar seems to be focusing on the characters in Holes with his novel titled Small Steps, which follows the life of "Armpit" Johnson who was one of Stanley's fellow Camp Green Lake campers in Tent D. It's not surprising that Small Steps follows the life of another kid with a criminal record since, as Sachar said about himself in an interview for kidsread.com, he "tend[s] to write about underdogs."
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240 pages (right)