Review of Holes

holesstar2 Holes
by Louis Sachar
Intermediate, Older     Foster/Farrar     235 pp.
9/98      ISBN 0-374-33265-7      $16.00     g

Many years ago I heard a long — very long — shaggy dog story involving a couple of grumpy people, a plane, a train, a brick, a dog, and a cigar. It must have gone on for forty-five minutes or so, involved several false starts and stops and intense manipulation of the listener, but it was worth it.

Louis Sachar has written an exceptionally funny, and heart-rending, shaggy dog story of his own. With its breadth and ambition, Holes may surprise a lot of Sachar fans, but it shouldn’t. With his Wayside School stories and — this reviewer’s favorite — the Marvin Redpost books, Sachar has shown himself a writer of humor and heart, with an instinctive aversion to the expected. Holes is filled with twists in the lane, moments when the action is happily going along only to turn toward somewhere else that you gradually, eventually, sometimes on the last page, realize was the truest destination all along.

The book begins, “There is no lake at Camp Green Lake,” and we are immediately led into the mystery at the core of the story: “There once was a very large lake here, the largest lake in Texas.” We soon learn that there is no camp here either, not really, only a boys’ detention facility to which our hero, Stanley Yelnats, is headed. Stanley has been convicted of stealing a pair of shoes donated by baseball great Clyde Livingston to a celebrity auction. The fact that Stanley didn’t steal the shoes, that indeed they fell from the sky onto his head, is disbelieved by the judge, and even deemed immaterial by Stanley, who blames the whole misadventure on his “no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather!”— a favorite family mantra. And as the book goes on to show, with great finesse and a virtuoso’s display of circularity in action, Stanley is right. His destiny is as palindromic as his name.

We soon learn about that pig-stealing great-great-grandfather and the curse that has haunted Stanley’s family, even though the hapless elder Yelnats, like Stanley, didn’t steal anything, and the curse is more of an ordination, a casting of the die. Stanley’s great-grandfather found his place in the pattern when he encountered Kissing Kate Barlow, née Miss Katherine Barlow, who became a ruthless outlaw of the Wild West when her love for Sam, the Onion Man, became cause for small-town opprobrium — and murder. Miss Barlow’s recipe for spiced peaches also plays a large part in the story.

Heck, it all plays a large part in the story. Those peaches show up more than a century after they were canned, and their efficacy remains unchallenged. Just like Sam’s onions. Just like the lullaby, sung, with telling variations, by the Yelnats clan:

“If only, if only,” the woodpecker sighs,
“The bark on the tree was as soft as the skies.”
While the wolf waits below, hungry and lonely,
Crying to the moo-oo-oon,
“If only, if only.”

As for the title: when Stanley gets to Camp Green Lake, he discovers that every day each boy, each inmate, must dig a hole five feet by five feet by five feet. (Why? Too bad you can’t ask Kissing Kate Barlow.) Stanley makes a friend, Zero (nicknamed thus because this is exactly what the world finds him to be), with whom he eventually escapes the camp. These boys have a date with destiny and, trust me, it has everything to do with the pig, Kissing Kate, the lullaby, the peaches, the onions . . . even the sneakers. Sachar is masterful at bringing his realistic story and tall-tale motifs together, using a simple declarative style—

Stanley Yelnats was given a choice. The judge said, “You may go to jail, or you may go to Camp Green Lake.” Stanley was from a poor family. He had never been to camp before.

—that is all the more poignant, and funny, for its understatement, its willingness to stay out of the way.

We haven’t seen a book with this much plot, so suspensefully and expertly deployed, in too long a time. And the ending will make you cheer — for the happiness the Yelnats family finally finds — and cry, for the knowledge of how they lost so much for so long, all in the words of a lullaby. Louis Sachar has long been a great and deserved favorite among children, despite the benign neglect of critics. But Holes is witness to its own theme: what goes around, comes around. Eventually.

From the September/October 1998 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.
Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton

Editor Emeritus Roger Sutton was editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc., from 1996-2021. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his MA in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a BA from Pitzer College in 1978.

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