The opening line of Luis Sachar’s Holes sets the tone and theme for this funny, dark, mystery. “There is no lake at Camp Green Lake” (3). In the opening chapter, the narrator’s voice is casual, describing the setting of Camp Green Lake as if prompted by the reader picking up a brochure. The following chapter is barely half a page, introducing us to Stanley and his lack of choice to go to Camp Green Lake. After reading the first two chapters, we know we’re in store for an unfortunate adventure.
Sachar stacks the cards against Stanley from the start. Given a choice between terrible (jail) and maybe-not-terrible (camp), and chooses the latter, not knowing any better. Stanley is poor, overweight, picked on, and now, framed. On top of that, he is cursed! All of this we know by page seven, allowing the rest of the novel to really ground (or dig) us into Stanley’s predicament, survival, and quest for justice.
Sachar raises the stakes with almost every chapter, cutting away to several historical backstories which unfold on a “need to know” basis. Starting with his miserable circumstances, Stanley needs to understand how things work, to survive one day, then another and another. He then needs to not get picked on, then make friends. Once he begins to suspect the Warden is hiding something, he takes greater and greater risks to uncover the mystery.
The stakes are very high after Zero, Stanley’s only friend, runs away after a fight. Stanley pursues him, foolishly leaving the camp without taking any water. Parched and stumbling in the desert, we fear for Stanley’s basic survival. Yet he continues on, searching for his friend. The desert voyage ends with both boys trapped in a dug-out hole, surrounded by poisonous lizards and hostile adults with guns—pretty desperate circumstances!
Two elements of Sachar’s writing really shine in this book. One is his simple, understated prose. He doesn’t wax poetic on the desert, or draw elaborate similes, but rather states the circumstances and let’s us imagine Stanley’s misery. “For the second day in a row, he didn’t use soap. He was too tired” (43). When I read that, I paused to consider how much effort it took to use soap. No soap in a dusty desert after digging dirt all day? Yeah, that’s tired.
The second is his use of folklore, or family backstory, that almost takes on a fantastical element, providing insight into both his curse and salvation. These backstories also provide a sense of inevitability, yet one more obstacle for Stanley to overcome. Sachar draws these stories so vividly, giving us an image or idea that lingers even after we resume reading Stanley’s narrative: carrying Madame Zeroni up the mountain; Sam’s sweet onions; God’s thumb; Kissin’ Kate’s transformation. Each are charming, discreet stories, until we “dig enough holes” to piece them together.
While his prose is as clear and succinct as possible, Sachar only tells us what we need to know, when we need to know it. As the novel progresses, our slice of Swiss cheese grows larger, but is still riddled with missing pieces, holes, which only get filled in (and then even not entirely) at the end. Part three is titled “Filling in the holes.” Stanley does all the heavy lifting (literally) to get himself out of his predicament, liberating himself and Zero from their entrapment, which then liberates him from the curse that dogged all the Stanley Yelnats that before him. Stanley starts off in this story as the fat kid that no one sticks up for. Because he chooses to fight for most marginalized kid at Camp Green Lake makes him a classic, underdog hero for middle grade.