In Holes, author Louis Sacher creates a realistic portrait of a residential camp for troubled boys—right down to the peer politics, broken recreation room, and smell. Anyone who has visited such a facility would recognize it immediately, and Sacher’s portrayal of how these boys become objects to the authorities, rather than people, is bitter and deeply informed.
At the same time, the book’s realism rests within a frame that could have been lifted from a classic fable or even a fairy tale. Holes contains gypsy curses, extreme random chance, hero worship, terrifying beasts, good witches and bad ones, true love, buried treasure, clichés from every buddy movie and prison movie ever made, and riddles for the heroes to solve.
When Sacher shifts between the two modes, the transition is sometimes a bit bumpy. Coincidence can stretch too far, and at some key points it is not clear if realism or wish fulfillment is going to carry the day. But those points are rare, and as Sacher himself points out in the final pages, this story—like every story—is full of holes that readers must fill in themselves.
Holes is built around the intersecting stories of two settings (Camp Green Lake today, and Green Lake of 110 years ago) and three families (the Yelnats family, the Zeroni family, and the Walker family).
When he is falsely convicted of stealing sneakers that were donated for charity, Stanley Yelnats is sentenced to Camp Green Lake. When Stanley arrives, he is quickly processed and put to work digging holes. He and the other boys must dig countless five-by-five-foot holes “to build their character.” Stanley gets to know some aspects of his new life all at once: the formal structure of the camp, with the Warden at the top, Mr. Sir next in command, and Mr. Pendanski as his immediate counselor; and then an informal but complex community of boys, each of whom has his own nickname. Stanley is overweight and has a lot of trouble digging the holes at first, but he eventually settles into a routine.
If the campers find anything interesting, they are to let an adult supervisor know. When Stanley finds a gold tube with the initials “KB” on the bottom, he lets another boy, X-Ray, claim he found it in his hole because X-Ray has been there longest and the boy who finds something special gets the day off from digging. This sets Stanley moving up the informal hierarchy among the boys. He moves up even further when another of the boys (Magnet) steals Mr. Sir’s bag of sunflower seeds, and Stanley takes the blame without getting the other boy in trouble.
However, Stanley’s position among the boys is jeopardized when he starts teaching a boy named Zero how to read and Zero starts digging part of Stanley’s hole in repayment. This leads to tension. Some boys tease him, and Zigzag starts to pick on Stanley. Mr. Pendanski encourages Stanley to stand up for himself, and a near riot breaks out. Zero defends Stanley but afterwards runs away into the desert.
Days pass. A new boy named Twitch comes to camp to replace Zero. Twitch had stolen cars when out in the world, and this gives Stanley the idea to steal the water truck and drive out looking for Zero. Unfortunately, he wrecks the truck and has to go after Zero on foot.
Stanley walks toward the rock formation called Big Thumb. He stumbles across Zero, who had taken shelter under the remains of a wrecked old boat named the Mary Lou. The Mary Lou had belonged to Sam the onion man, who had lived in the town of Green Lake 110 years earlier, when there had actually been a lake there. Sam, a black man who sold onions for food and in...
(The entire section is 1041 words.)
Chapters 1-3 Summary
Louis Sachar begins Holes with a description of Camp Green Lake. Nothing is green there, and there is no lake. It used to be the site of the biggest lake in Texas, but now it is a wasteland. There used to be a town as well, but it died when the lake dried up.
In summer, it is very hot at Camp Green Lake. It is about ninety-five degrees in the shade, and there is almost no shade. There are only two old oak trees that stand on the edge of the empty lakebed. A hammock hangs between those two trees, but campers are not allowed to use it. Only the Warden gets to lie in the hammock.
On the lakebed, campers often find rattlesnakes and scorpions. They are poisonous but not usually deadly. Yellow-spotted lizards are another matter: anyone who gets bitten by one of them is doomed.
Camp Green Lake is so bad kids only go there because they have to. Bad kids are sent to Camp Green Lake, where the Warden forces them to dig a big hole every day. Some people think this treatment will turn bad kids good.
Stanley Yelnats gets a choice. The judge says, “You may go to jail, or you can go to Camp Green Lake.” Stanley’s family is poor, and he has never been to camp before. He does not know what Camp Green Lake is like, so he says he would like to go there.
Stanley rides to camp on a bus with a driver and an armed guard. He is handcuffed to his seat. On the trip, he thinks about his life and his family.
Stanley remembers how, when he was little, he used to play a game with his stuffed animals. He pretended they were at a camp called Camp Fun and Games. Now, sitting in the bus to Camp Green Lake, he tries to pretend that is where he is going. He tells himself he will make friends and swim in the lake.
Stanley is innocent of any crime. He got arrested “because of his no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather!” According to family legend, Stanley’s...
(The entire section is 515 words.)
Chapter 4 Summary
The bus driver unlocks Stanley’s handcuffs, and Stanley thanks the driver for the ride. He has been riding the bus for hours with nothing to eat or drink. As he climbs out of the bus, he feels dazed and his throat hurts.
The guard leads Stanley into a small, air-conditioned building. Inside, a man sits at a desk wearing a cowboy hat and dark sunglasses. He is drinking a can of soda, which makes Stanley feel even thirstier. The man has a huge bag of sunflower seeds by his desk. When the guard asks about it, the man at the desk explains that he recently quit smoking; now he eats sunflower seeds instead.
The man at the desk gets two cans of soda out of a small fridge. Stanley hopes he will get one, but the man gives them to the guard and says one is for the bus driver. When the guard complains about the length of the trip to Camp Green Lake, Stanley feels a little sorry for the man, considering that he has to make the trip twice in one day.
The man behind the desk spits some sunflower seed shells into a wastebasket. He tells Stanley to call him Mr. Sir. Stanley does not think this can really be the man’s name, but he obeys.
Mr. Sir strip searches Stanley and then issues him two sets of uniforms and a towel. The uniforms consist of orange jumpsuits, orange T-shirts, yellow socks, white sneakers, and an orange cap with a flap sewn on to protect the back of the neck from the sun. Stanley also gets a plastic canteen, but it is empty.
Mr. Sir tells Stanley to wear one set of clothes for work and the other for relaxation. He explains that Stanley’s job will be to dig a hole every day, seven days each week. Every hole has to be five feet deep and five feet across all around. He is supposed to use his shovel to measure the depth of each hole.
Next, Mr. Sir explains that Stanley will eat breakfast every morning at 4:30, then go directly out to dig. They start early so that the boys can get...
(The entire section is 532 words.)
Chapter 5 Summary
There are six tents at Camp Green Lake, five for campers and one for counselors. Stanley is assigned to D tent. His counselor is named Mr. Pendanski. Mr. Pendanski, who is not as scary as Mr. Sir, explains that his name is easy to keep in mind if Stanley just remembers the words pen, dance, and key. He tells Stanley that Camp Green Lake has only one rule: “Don’t upset the Warden.”
Mr. Pendanski says he respects Stanley even though Stanley must have made mistakes if he is at Camp Green Lake. Mr. Pendanski explains that having done bad things does not make him a bad kid. Camp Green Lake can turn his life around if Stanley lets it. Stanley does not argue with anything Mr. Pendanski says. He...
(The entire section is 401 words.)
Chapter 6 Summary
Stanley quickly learns that life at Camp Green Lake is anything but comfortable. Showers only last four minutes, and there is no hot water. Dinner is a tasteless meat and vegetable stew. Stanley finishes his serving even though he does not like it. While he eats, one of the campers asks him what he did to get sent to Camp Green Lake. Stanley says he stole a pair of sneakers belonging to “Sweet Feet” Clyde Livingston, a famous baseball player. None of the boys believes him, and Stanley reflects on the irony of this. Back home, when he said he was innocent of the crime, nobody believed him and he was convicted. Now that he is paying for the crime, nobody believes him when he says he did it.
Clyde Livingston is...
(The entire section is 461 words.)
Chapter 7 Summary
When Mr. Pendanski wakes everyone up the next morning, Stanley feels like he had only just fallen asleep. For breakfast he gets orange juice and bad-smelling cereal. It is still dark when he begins digging his first hole. The shovel feels heavy in his hands, and at first he thinks there is something wrong with it. He has trouble even cracking through the surface of the hard dirt.
Stanley’s shovel is five feet long from end to end. He is supposed to use it as a measuring tool for his hole, which needs to be five feet deep and five feet across in all directions. The whole lakebed appears to be full of holes. Before Stanley set out in the morning, Mr. Pendanski reminded him to tell a counselor if anything unusual turned...
(The entire section is 1193 words.)
Chapters 8-9 Summary
In Chapter 8, the story pauses briefly to describe the yellow-spotted lizard. Some people do not believe yellow-spotted lizards exist, but their bites are deadly whether or not someone believes. Yellow-spotted lizards are yellowish-green, with exactly eleven hard-to-see spots. They have scary faces with red-rimmed eyes, black teeth, and white tongues. They live in groups in big holes that give them protection from the sun. They eat many plant and animal foods—including the shells of sunflower seeds.
Chapter 9 begins as Stanley takes a shower. Today the cold water feels wonderful. He lets it pour over his sore body for the full four minutes he is allowed to let the water run. He does not use soap because he is too...
(The entire section is 456 words.)
Chapters 10-11 Summary
Stanley sleeps well his second night, but by the next morning he is sore all over. He does not delay getting up, though. He knows that soon the sun will rise and burn down on him while he is digging, and he wants to get as much done as possible before that happens.
Today Stanley knows how to crack through the surface of the dirt to start his hole. He also knows to pile his dirt far from the edge of his hole so he will not have to move it later. He realizes that X-Ray was right that the second hole is the hardest. He does not think he can do it, but he has no choice. By now he has learned not to think about how big the task is, just to scoop up one shovelful at a time. He also knows to conserve his water and drink the...
(The entire section is 556 words.)
Chapters 12-13 Summary
Again, Stanley is the last boy to finish digging his hole. Today he is so tired that he would not turn down a ride back to camp, but nobody offers one. When he arrives at D tent, he finds all the boys sitting in a circle with Mr. Pendanski. Stanley tells the group he finished his second hole, and he tells X-Ray that the second hole really is the hardest. X-Ray shakes his head. “The third hole’s the hardest,” he says.
Mr. Pendanski tells the boys they all need to think about what they want to do when they rejoin society. They have to have goals, he explains, or they will end up back in jail. Mr. Pendanski asks Magnet what he wants to do with his life, but Magnet does not know. Magnet likes animals, so Stanley...
(The entire section is 579 words.)
Chapters 14-15 Summary
All night, Stanley wishes he could have kept the gold tube he found. For once in his life, he had a stroke of luck, but he did not get to benefit from it. At breakfast, he asks X-Ray about the tube, and X-Ray refuses to talk. Stanley feels hurt and bewildered as Mr. Pendanski assigns him a place to begin digging his day’s hole.
When the water truck comes, X-Ray fills his canteen and says nothing about the find. It is not until Mr. Pendanski goes to the next group of boys to fill their canteens that X-Ray calls out to him. Everyone runs to look in X-Ray’s hole. X-Ray shows them the little gold tube in a shovelful of dirt. Mr. Pendanski examines the find and seems excited.
Mr. Pendanski drives back to...
(The entire section is 412 words.)
Chapters 16-17 Summary
The next day, the Warden watches the boys dig again. Again she makes some of them sift through dirt while the others dig. Stanley keeps thinking about the place where they were digging before, where he found the actual artifact. He also worries about the little tube itself. What could K.B. stand for?
By lunchtime, the Warden is so impatient she threatens to make Mr. Sir dig with the boys if they do not speed up. After that, the boys work much faster, especially when Mr. Sir is watching. They have to keep working long after all the other groups are finished.
That evening back in the Wreck Room, Stanley tries to figure out a way to get the Warden to take the boys from D tent back to the spot where they were...
(The entire section is 477 words.)
Chapters 18-20 Summary
The next day, Mr. Sir takes the boys to a new part of the lake. They each go back to digging their own holes, five feet wide and five feet deep. Stanley is glad. He likes knowing how much he has to dig every day. It is also less nerve-wracking without the Warden hanging around.
Stanley has to move slowly and gingerly because his head aches from the accident with Zigzag’s shovel. However, the rest of his body is not sore. He is tougher and stronger than he used to be. He is still slower at digging than the other boys, but not by much.
That afternoon, Stanley writes to his mother again. He claims he has been learning to rock climb at camp. He stays in the tent so the other boys cannot tease him, but he keeps...
(The entire section is 624 words.)
Chapters 21-22 Summary
Stanley walks back to his hole. The boys from D tent are farthest away from the Warden’s house today, so it is a long walk. He knows that, once again today, he will be digging long after the other boys are finished. He hopes he finishes before Mr. Sir recovers. After the scene in the Warden’s cabin, Stanley does not want to be alone out on the dry lake bed with Mr. Sir.
As he walks, Stanley thinks about his great-grandfather, the one who was robbed by Kissin’ Kate Barlow and left stranded in the desert. Stanley feels stranded, too, although he is more scared of Mr. Sir than he is of the desert weather.
According to Stanley’s family legend, his great-grandfather survived alone in the desert for...
(The entire section is 609 words.)
Chapters 23-26 Summary
Chapters 23 through 26 take the narrative of Holes back in time one hundred and ten years, when Green Lake was an actual lake. In that distant past, the lakefront town always had a picnic on the Fourth of July. Everyone played games and ate pies and jams made from peaches, which grew all around the town. Every year, a woman named Katherine Barlow got a special award for spiced peaches. Katherine used a secret recipe to make these peach preserves, and everyone loved them.
Katherine was Green Lake’s schoolteacher. The school was rundown, but she was good at her job. She taught children all day, and in the evenings she held classes for adults. Many of her adult students were young men who wanted to date her....
(The entire section is 654 words.)
Chapter 27 Summary
Mr. Sir blames Stanley for the incident with the Warden and the rattlesnake-venom nail polish. For several days, whenever Mr. Sir delivers water to the boys, he pours Stanley’s water onto the ground instead of into his canteen. Stanley knows he does not have the power to do anything about this, so he simply thanks Mr. Sir for the water and goes on with his work.
Stanley has been thirsty since he arrived at Camp Green Lake, but now he is thirstier than ever. He conserves his water carefully, drinking it only when Mr. Pendanski is driving the water truck. Fortunately, Mr. Pendanski figures out what is going on. Whenever he comes to fill Stanley’s canteen, he lets Stanley drink a little extra. Even so, Stanley gets...
(The entire section is 422 words.)
Chapter 28 Summary
Chapter 28 shifts back in time again; now it is twenty years after Sam’s death. Kate Barlow returns to Green Lake. It has not rained a drop since the townspeople killed Sam, and Green Lake is now a ghost town. The peach trees are dead, and the lake is almost dry. The only trees left are two oaks by an old cabin five miles from the edge of the little water that remains. Kate moves into the cabin.
By now Kate is crazy. Sometimes she hears Sam’s voice outside, calling out for people to buy his onions. Kate sits in the cabin and speaks to him. She tells him she knows it is hot, but she feels cold anyway. Sometimes she hears him answer back, saying he could fix her discomfort. When she hears that, she feels better, at...
(The entire section is 440 words.)
Chapters 29-30 Summary
The boys continue digging holes every day. Clouds build, and all the boys hope the rain will reach Camp Green Lake. They imagine it will rain so hard the lake will fill up so they can go for a swim.
When there is lightning, Stanley can see a big mountain in the distance. On top of it is a strange rock that looks like a fist with a huge thumb sticking up. He remembers his great-grandfather’s words about staying alive in the desert: “I found refuge on God’s thumb.” Stanley has always wanted to know what that meant. When he was a little boy, he used to ask his dad about it, but his dad never knew the answer.
One day, Zigzag claims it is July 8, his birthday. Stanley, who has not kept track of days or...
(The entire section is 693 words.)
Chapters 31-22 Summary
The other boys leave Stanley to finish Zero’s hole alone. Nobody offers to help. Stanley digs and feels angry at them, at the counselors, at his “no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing great-great-grandfather,” and at himself. He knows he should have helped Zero learn to read because it was right, not because Zero gave him a rest from digging every day. He knows he should try to help Zero now. Nobody will stop Stanley if he runs away, but he is scared. He does not know what to do about water—unless he can somehow get to the rock formation he thinks of as the Big Thumb.
Stanley considers many ways to help Zero. He thinks of going to the Warden and telling her where he really found the lipstick tube on the condition...
(The entire section is 543 words.)
Chapters 33-34 Summary
Stanley runs for a while, then he slows down. He knows nobody is coming after him. He is sure the truck will not be usable for a while. His mind races, but eventually the walking calms him down.
Stanley walks toward the Big Thumb, but he knows he cannot reach it without any water. He will have to return to the camp but decides not to do that right away. He thinks he might as well look for Zero until he is too tired and thirsty to walk anymore. That will give everyone time to calm down. Then Stanley can go back and try to make a deal with the Warden, using the location of the hole where he found the lipstick tube as his bargaining chip.
Stanley keeps finding holes long after he is out of sight of the camp....
(The entire section is 466 words.)
Chapters 35-36 Summary
Zero looks like a rotting jack-o’-lantern. He is so dehydrated that when he talks, his tongue looks like it is wriggling uselessly in his mouth. Stanley explains that he has no water, that he tried bringing the water truck but failed. He says it is time to return to camp, but Zero refuses to go.
Zero takes Stanley under the boat and offers him some sploosh, which turns out to be a jar of brown-colored liquid. Zero explains that he found sixteen jars of the strange stuff when he arrived at the boat. They are why he is still alive.
Zero knocks the top off of a jar with his shovel, which he took with him when he ran away from camp. Although Stanley is frightened of the broken glass and the hundred-year-old...
(The entire section is 530 words.)
Chapters 37-38 Summary
As soon as Stanley realizes he and Zero may really make it to the Big Thumb, he begins to doubt that they will find water there, but he does not give up. He sets out uphill with Zero beside him. Soon the boys leave the barren lake behind. They walk past thorny weeds and begin to be tormented by bugs.
Stanley desperately wants a rest, but he is scared that he and Zero will not be able to start again if they stop. He resolves to keep going as long as Zero keeps going. To pass the time, he restarts the game of spelling words for Zero to sound out.
Suddenly, Zero vomits up all the sploosh he drank back at the boat. When he is finished, he gets up and tries to keep walking. Stanley encourages him, pointing out...
(The entire section is 468 words.)
Chapters 39-40 Summary
Stanley wakes up in a meadow beneath the giant tower of rock. He has very little strength, and his whole body hurts. His mouth is coated with sand from the dirty water he has been drinking. The hole he dug the night before has just a couple of inches of dark brown water at the bottom. He tries to rinse his mouth out with it.
Fighting against his weakness, Stanley forces himself to get up and explore the meadow. He walks the last few yards to the rock tower and touches it. He thinks about going to find the shovel and the jars so he can enlarge the little well he has dug.
Zero wakes up moaning, drinks some water, and lies on the ground shaking. Stanley encourages him to rest, but Zero wants to talk. He...
(The entire section is 480 words.)
Chapters 41-42 Summary
Over the next day or two, Stanley and Zero continue resting and eating onions. Stanley makes the water hole very big, almost as big as the holes he used to dig back at Camp Green Lake. Zero’s health is improving; Stanley, to his surprise, does not get sick.
Zero tells Stanley about the homeless shelter. He explains that he only went there when the weather was very bad and only if he could find a woman to pretend to be his mother so the people at the shelter would not bother him about being alone. Ever since Zero was little, when he was with his real mother, the two of them had stolen whatever they needed. So one day at the shelter, Zero took Clyde Livingston’s shoes. He did not know they were special because he...
(The entire section is 502 words.)
Chapters 43 Summary
The next morning, Stanley and Zero pick onions and fill their jars with water. By the time they are prepared for their trip, it is late enough in the day that they do not want to start. They decide to wait until the next morning. While they wait, Zero tries to remember his childhood so he can tell Stanley about it. He describes his mother singing a song—much like the song Stanley sang about the woodpecker and the wolf—in a yellow room when he was still very young. He also remembers being homeless.
Stanley thinks about his own family and wonders whether they know he has run away from camp. He hopes they do not think he is dead. He worries about them because his mother said they might get evicted from their apartment....
(The entire section is 584 words.)
Chapters 44-45 Summary
Sitting in his hole, Stanley listens to the sounds of Camp Green Lake until he falls asleep. After several hours, he hears Zero calling for him to wake up. They climb up and find the hole where Stanley thinks he found the lipstick tube. Stanley digs, hoping to find a treasure, while Zero goes to steal water and food.
After a while, Zero returns and gives Stanley some sugary breakfast cereal. After eating nothing but onions for so long, Stanley has trouble adjusting to the starchy sweetness, but he manages to eat a little. Zero digs for a while and then goes to get more water while Stanley resumes shoveling.
Stanley reasons that Kate Barlow could not have dug terribly deep, so he works on widening the hole...
(The entire section is 450 words.)
Chapters 46-47 Summary
For some reason, the lizards do not bite Stanley and Zero. They crawl everywhere—over Stanley’s closed mouth, in and out of his pocket, through his hair—but they do not bite. One leaps toward Mr. Pendanski, and Mr. Sir shoots it in the air.
While she waits for the lizards to kill the boys, the Warden makes up a plan and tells it to the counselors. When Stanley is dead, they will turn his body over to “that woman” and tell her that he tried to run away in the night. They will claim that Stanley went crazy and that is why he tried to run even though he was going to be released the following day. They will not show Zero’s body to anyone because nobody knows Zero exists. When this is decided, the Warden turns to...
(The entire section is 669 words.)
Chapters 48-49 Summary
Stanley walks back to camp in a daze. He cannot really understand anything that is going on. He learns the lawyer’s name, Ms. Morengo, and he thinks she seems tall even though she is shorter than he is. Mr. Pedanski gives him some juice and a bagel. Stanley drinks but cannot eat.
The Warden invents yet another story, saying the suitcase belongs to Stanley but its contents were stolen from her cabin. She demands that Stanley open the suitcase. Ms. Morengo says not to. As the two women argue, Stanley does nothing at all. Eventually the Attorney General says Stanley and Ms. Morengo can go, but Stanley says he cannot leave Zero; he calls him by his real name, Hector, for the adults’ benefit. “They’ll kill him,”...
(The entire section is 541 words.)
Chapters 50 Summary
There is no way of knowing whether there really was a curse on the men of Stanley Yelnats’s family. Stanley’s mother does not think there was. However, Stanley’s father invented his cure for foot odor on the same day the great-great-grandson of Elya Yelnats carried the great-great-great-grandson of Madame Zeroni up the mountain.
Stanley and Hector get to keep the suitcase they uncovered at Camp Green Lake. It contains some jewels that are not of high quality as well as a bunch of financial papers. The papers turn out to be worth a good deal, and Stanley and Zero each get almost a million dollars. Stanley buys his family a house with a big laboratory in the basement where his father can work. Zero hires a private...
(The entire section is 415 words.)