Critical Overview

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Critical discussions of Holes, like critical discussions of most young adult novels, are relatively infrequent and tend to fall into certain predictable categories: reviews of the book, interviews with the author, and articles on how to teach the book. However, in all discussions of Holes, certain themes repeat time and again, and all critics praise the author for the same reasons. The first of these is the emotional reality of the book—its institutional setting, the sense of injustice, the importance of peers, and so on. Second is the setting itself, meaning both Camp Green Lake itself and the surrounding desert. More than one critic commented on its intensity.

Third is what Jennifer Matteson called the fairy tale element of the book. This refers to both the potentially literal magic of the gypsy curse and to the structure of the story in which two kids whose ancestors were intimately connected run into one another. Such coincidences are common in fairy tales or fables.

A fourth area that many commentators mention is the book’s complex plot structure. Sacher’s story is markedly more complex than most young adult novels, so much so that Tamra Orr referred to it as a puzzle. Not only do multiple story lines and settings intersect, but Sacher is willing to leave some questions open-ended. That decision multiplies the novel’s complexity, as does the brevity with which he mentions certain key details, like the Warden’s identity. Sacher manages all of these points so well that Les Edgerton holds up Holes as an example for would-be writers, using it as a model of efficiency and powerful dramatic tension.

This dramatic intensity is balanced by the final element critics single out for attention in Sacher’s work: its sense of humor. From the boys’ nicknames to the jokes that they and the Yelnats family tell throughout the novel, humor is praised as a welcome and effective relief. Sacher’s success at blending these factors is witnessed most strongly by the awards the novel has won: Holes received both a National Book Award and the 1999 Newbery Award.

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