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 various folk medicine concoctions, had been killed by the people of Green Lake when he was seen kissing Miss Katherine Barlow. Katherine Barlow was the local schoolteacher, and a rich young local named Charles “Trout” Walker had wanted her, but she turned him down. When the townspeople killed her beloved Sam, pretty Miss Barlow, who had until this time been known mainly for her peach...
(The entire section is 1,233 words.)