As a child of the 80s and 90s, I was really excited to share today’s book with my son. I had never read the book but was a big fan of the movie adaptation. As we all know, though, sometimes movies based on books turn out wildly different from their original source material. Having never read the book myself, would I find this to be the case? Luckily, no! Upon reading Holes by Louis Sachar, I found that nearly every scene described in the book is also depicted in the movie. It was easy to visualize the scenes in my head as I read to my son. But I required that we finish the book before he watched the movie, which we managed over the course of 5 bedtime sessions.
So the first thing other parents should know before they read Holes to their kids… though I read this book to my almost 9 year old, the story is geared more towards the late elementary/middle school crowd. It was actually a banned book at one points. But I like to think my son is mature enough for ‘tough conversations’ and Holes presented plenty of opportunities for discussion. Parents will need to determine for themselves whether the subject matter is appropriate for their families. Topics include: youths committing crime, juvenile incarceration, homelessness, illiteracy, adults acting in abusive ways towards children in their care, and most shockingly, racism that leads to murder.
Ok, so I admit, when you put it that way, you have to wonder who would choose to read this book to their child. And yeah, there’s a lot to unpack here but bear with me. At its heart, Holes is a story of friendship, courage and perseverance. It’s also about a curse that has haunted two families for over 100 years. It’s about the greed that can grow in one’s heart, the growth that can happen when you’re brave and… onions. It’s about the ties that bind generations together in completely unexpected ways.
But quite literally, Holes is the story of Stanley Yelnats, a young teen who finds himself on board a beat up school bus along a dusty road, leading to a camp for wayward boys. Stanley wasn’t always a wayward boy, in fact it can be debated whether he actually is one now. He’s been convicted for the theft of a pair of shoes intended for an auction to benefit the children living in a local homeless shelter. That’s certainly a bit heartless but it’s when you learn that the shoes were donated by the famous professional baseball player Clyde ‘Sweet Feet’ Livingston, that you understand why Stanley’s alleged crime gained the interest and ire of the juvenile judicial system.
Stanley didn’t stand a chance after the judge heard Sweet Feet’s impassioned story of how he’d grown up in the same homeless shelter. He’d donated the shoes to help give back to those who had helped him in his time of need. There was no coming back from a story like that and Stanley was quickly found guilty of theft. His parents and grandfather blame Stanley’s situation on the actions of his no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather, whose past actions have cursed the Yelnats family for over 100 years. As punishment, he’s given a choice of jail time or serving his sentence at Camp Green Lake, an establishment in rural Texas, where ‘bad boys’ are sent to build character through the relentless digging of holes in the hot sun.
Based on the book’s title, you know that Stanley chooses Camp Green Lake. Upon arrival, he meets Mr. Sir, a gruff ‘counselor’ of sorts who is sure to point out to Stanley that there are no guard towers or fences surrounding the camp. That he’s free to leave at any time without a fight. Those running the camp know that the boys won’t run because they have the only source of water for 100 miles in any direction. You see, rain hasn’t fallen in the area for over 100 years. Camp Green Lake is a total misnomer; what used to be the largest lake in Texas is now nothing but a barren, sun baked basin. And if thirst doesn’t kill you, maybe a rattlesnake or a yellow spotted lizard. The lizards are absolutely feared at the camp because the tiniest bite is enough to kill anyone. And the hundreds of holes dug by countless boys over the years gives both snakes and lizards the perfect place to hide.
Stanley soon meets the other boys. They’re definitely rough around the edges but he falls into place with his bunkmates. He learns that the reason there was a bed for him at Camp Green Lake is because another boy intentionally subjected himself to a rattlesnake bite so he could escape to the hospital. It’s certainly a drastic move and it sets the scene for the kind of treatment Stanley can expect to experience. He also meets Mr. Pendanski, another adult counselor who seems at first blush to be a supportive influence on the boys. But you can also sense an undercurrent of menace just below the surface, like he can’t be trusted. He’s also very dismissive of a small, quiet boy named Zero, leading the reader to see him as a bully in disguise.
Stanley digs his first hole the next morning, awakened long before the first light of the day. The boys dig early to avoid the hottest part of the day, though Stanley is still digging well into the afternoon. Holes must measure 5 feet in diameter as well as 5 feet deep. The boys are told that they’re digging simply to build character but that if they do find something interesting, to turn it in so the mysterious Warden can see it. If the Warden likes what they’ve found, the boy will be granted the rest of the day off, as well as a longer shower. But again, they’re building character, not looking for anything… nothing to see here!
I feel like I’ve written this review without really telling you about the story but I think that’s for the best. What I will tell you is that Holes is a story of misunderstood boys getting their chance to speak and of dangerous people paying for their actions. It’s a story of breaking long held ideas of curses that hold families back from truly living and of righting wrongs, even when you didn’t commit the wrongs. It’s a story of climbing up a mountain on blind faith and of finding your way home when you didn’t even know you had one. Fill a hole on your bookshelf with Holes… you’ll be glad you did!