Ah Louis Sachar. For many people, myself included, this man had a direct connection to our childhoods. He seemed to understand what it meant to be a kid, and Holes is no different in that respect. However, the book also dealt with themes, characters, and situations that were a good deal darker than those in his previous novels. That didn’t seem to hurt it, though, as it’s arguably Sachar’s most popular novel, winning several awards and a movie starring Shia LeBeouf. Throughout it all, Sachar seems to hold on to what it means to be a kid, and that’s what makes the book really special.
Holes, like most of Sachar’s work, starts with an odd premise. The marvelously named Stanley Yelnats IV is arrested for stealing shoes that a famous sports star had donated to charity. He didn’t do it, but is found guilty anyway and sent to Camp Greenlake – a juvenile detention center with no green and less lake. Here the inmates, Stanley included, spend there time digging holes exactly 5 feet deep and 5 feet wide, under the supervision of The Warden and Mr. Sir. However, not all is as it seems with these two, and that… brings us to the other plots.
Central this book is the way Sachar interweaves three distinct plots together. It’s not just a mystery story, a romance story, or a coming of age story, though all of those elements are there. Instead, Holes is three different stories, with different characters and themes, in different time periods, that all inform one another and impact one another significantly. Somehow it manages to do this without being too confusing. One plot that keeps cropping up is the story of How Stanley’s great-great grandfather first gets cursed by Madame Zeroni – and the way it finally pays off with the main plot is nothing short of brilliant. More prominent, however, is the story of Kissing-Kate Barlow, the legendary outlaw. All of these stories present some intense themes, exploring the consequences of dishonesty, the reasons people turn to crime, and even racial disparities. The book weaves these together in impressive ways, and always frames them in a way that a kid would understand and be interested in, and this craftsmanship is why this book has taken its place in many English classes across the US.
The kids stand out in this book. The characters aren’t quite as cartoonish in some of Sachar’s early work, but they display a plucky resilience and endearing attitude that finds the balance between light and cartoonish and dark and gritty the same way the rest of the book does. Stanley Yelnats, the main character in the novel, is timid, unlucky, and doesn’t have a lot of friends. Even though he’s chronically unlucky, he remains surprisingly upbeat and positive This makes him a more relatable and unique character, and his character’s arc all the more satisfying. This is also the case with Zero, Stanley’s closest friend at Camp Greenlake, who gets picked on, called a “nothing” and stupid. His empowerment throughout the story is inspiring, and his kind nature and clever manner make him a much-loved character in the book. The ensemble cast of character’s at Camp Greenlake make the story all the more enjoyable. Each has his own unique story and character, and while there can be a few too many to keep track of, they never quite feel like expendable background characters.
The villains in this are outstanding, especially if you’re reading this as a kid. The Warden is the abusive, terrifying jailer who runs the camp. Known to keep rattlesnake venom in her nail-polish, she commands the equally abusive Mr. Sir and the juvenile delinquents with an iron fist. Mr. Sir is one of the “counselors” at the Camp, and right-hand man to The Warden. Both are so frightening that the other counselors simply look away from their abuse, too frightened to speak up themselves. The two are characterized a bit like cartoon villains, but the way they act – and the way people act around them – gives a lot of weight to their threats. They feel like imposing villains, but Sachar never loses sight of that balancing act he’s playing throughout the novel.
Like most of Sachar’s work, Holes is a kid’s book. However, it also deals with a lot more serious themes and subjects than most kid’s books, and Sachar seems to be writing with a careful eye on the scales as he balances that. It’s silly, ridiculous, hyperbolic, but also emotional, jarring, and deep. The writing carries this balance perfectly, and the characters and plot make this a book that you can’t just put down. This is classified as a children’s novel, but it’s got so much heart and impact that it’s suitable, and recommended, for anyone.
Kindle edition of Holes is $6.99 from Amazon
Did you like the book? Did you hate it? Let me know in the comments below and we’ll talk about books!
Credit for that beautiful alternate book cover up top goes to keriberrygirl