Holes is set at Camp Green Lake, in Green Lake, Texas. Most of the action happens now or in the recent past; the novel is set recently enough for the camp records to be computerized and for characters to speak casually of “cyberspace.” Camp Green Lake’s name falls somewhere between a joke and a curse. Nothing is green there, and there is no lake. It is a full-blown desert, one where the average temperature in the shade is 95 degrees. The isolation—the boys arrive there via a nine-hour bus ride—and temperature combine to make it a perfect prison. There is nowhere they could run to, and the camp is the only known source of water for many miles. But long before they reached this water, they would have to cross a landscape full of rattlesnakes, scorpions, poisonous lizards, and even a few tarantulas.
The landscape is described vividly but not always realistically; Sacher is quite specific about how poisonous the lizards are and what they look like, but he does not mention any of the surrounding desert plants in any detail. The focus is always kept on four things: the threats produced by the heat, the threats produced by the surrounding animals, the camp itself, and the holes. The boys are continually digging holes (supposedly to build character), and so the area around the camp looks surreally artificial due to the hundreds of holes surrounding it that are exactly five feet deep and five feet wide.
While this is a fierce and austere setting, Green Lake is made more tragic and meaningful by the sections set 110 years in the past. Back then, Green Lake had been an actual lake, full of enough water for people to go boating, and the nearby town had been flourishing. That all ended when the townspeople killed one of two would-be lovers because of racism (he was black; she was white). No rain fell on Green Lake after that, creating a sense of a larger world in which justice is ordained and operates through magic and curses.
A few scenes are set elsewhere, either on the bus on the way to Camp Green Lake (before Stanley reached the camp) or in Stanley’s home (after he returned from the camp). While at Camp Green Lake, or on his walk through the nearby desert to the mountains with Zero, Stanley and Zero share stories of some other settings, such as the homeless shelter where Zero stayed or the playground area where Zero waited for his mother, who never returned. These are briefly but intensely captured, usually through what they mean to the characters. They are sites where intense emotional action or interaction occurred, not real places in themselves.