Book review

Holes by Louis Sachar (1998)

You really get three stories for the price of one with this book, but the main theme is how young Stanley Yelnats IV comes to redeem the curse which was visited upon his great-great-grandfather and all the Yelnats family, through the generations, by Madame Zeroni.

Here is the first thread of this story. Four generations ago, in Latvia, the young Elya Yelnats fell in love with the beautiful but stupid Myra Menke. He sought the help of ancient Madame Zeroni to win Myra's hand in marriage. In return for Madame Zeroni's help, Elya promised to carry her up the mountain to drink from a special spring one more time before she died. Unfortunately for Elya, the courtship went wrong and in a fit of despair he boarded a ship bound for America to begin a new life before he had fulfilled his promise to Madame Zeroni. Things never went right for long after that. Settled in America, Elya had one son who succeeded in making a fortune, but he lost it all when he was robbed by Kissin' Kate Barlow, the famous outlaw.

So, when we meet Stanley Yelnats IV, he is on his way to a boys' juvenile detention centre for a crime which he did not commit. The family curse has struck again! The second thread of this story takes place at Camp Green Lake. What can Stanley make of life in a juvenile detention centre? Stanley is rather a gentle type himself, overweight, reconciled to failure and being bullied at school.

'You are to dig one hole each day, including Saturdays and Sundays. Each hole must be five feet deep, and five feet across in every direction. Your shovel is your measuring stick. Breakfast is served at 4.30.'
Stanley must have looked surprised, because Mr. Sir went onto explain that they started early to avoid the hottest part of the day. 'No one is going to baby-sit you,' he added. 'The longer it takes you to dig, the longer you will be out in the sun. If you dig up anything interesting, you are to report it to me or any other counselor. When you finish, the rest of the day is yours.'
Stanley nodded to show he understood.
'This isn't a Girl Scout camp,' said Mr. sir.

It certainly isn't a Girl Scout camp. And it isn't a green lake either. The lake dried up years and years ago:

'Nobody runs away from here. We don't need a fence. Know why? Because we've got the only water for a hundred miles. You want to run away? You'll be buzzard food in three days.'

So Stanley gets on with it. He learns how to dig his holes. He keeps his mouth shut. He tries not to antagonize anyone. He even forms a tentative friendship with one of them, Zero.

And here comes the third strand of this story. Who was Kissin' Kate Barlow? How did she come to be such a fearsome outlaw? What happened to her, and her ill-gotten fortune? At Camp Green Lake, there are hundreds of holes dug, apparently at random, across the dried-up lake bed. The Warden claims the labour is character building. Stanley thinks the Warden must be looking for something. Slowly, ideas come to Stanley, after he finds a strange cylinder in the earth, engraved with the initials KB. The Warden is frantic to unearth more, and Stanley is also quite interested - wasn't his own great-grandfather robbed of his fortune by Kissin' Kate Barlow?

This is an intricate story. There are a lot of characters spread across the generations. Their paths cross and re-cross brilliantly. And who should end up at Camp Green Lake with Stanley, but Zero, real name Hector Zeroni, great-great-great-grandson of Madame Zeroni. Perhaps Stanley can render some service to Hector which will redeem the ancient curse of the Yelnats family? Read on ...

I think you will really enjoy this book. It's an adventure and a mystery, with moments of high suspense, all neatly tied-off with a happy ending.

What can I read next?

Actually, Holes isn't an easy book to follow. It's a very subtle blend of real life with a hint of magic. I think you might enjoy this one by Susan Gates:

If you really enjoy the magic, I would recommend David Almond's book:

And if the real life appeals to you more, you might like to look at this one by Michael Morpurgo:

And you might really enjoy this trilogy by William Nicholson. It is set in a completely different world:

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