by Louis Sachar
A review by Chris Bolton
"If only, if only," the woodpecker sighs,
"The bark on the tree was as soft as the sky."
While the wolf waits below, hungry and lonely,
He cries to the moo-oo-oon,
"If only, if only."
Louis Sachar, Holes
Few adult novels can hope to attain the treasured status of a beloved children's
book. One can make a connection to an adult book for a variety of reasons
literary, nostalgic, emotional, aesthetic but these pale in comparison to
the romantic identification a child develops for a book that hits him/her just
right, much as no adult relationship acquires the rarified (perhaps imaginary)
intensity of young love.
I read Holes this year, about twenty years too late for such idolatry. Still,
as I devoured it in one night, too thrilled to stop turning the pages just because
my body needed sleep, I felt a familiar stirring and realized that if I had
discovered this book when I was nine, I would have cherished it for the rest
of my life. It would have found a place on my desert-island bookshelf beside
Gordon Korman's MacDonald Hall books (which, astonishingly, are out of print),
(the sequel to Bunnicula,
and the best entry in that series), Judy Blume's Then
Again, Maybe I Won't and just a few years later, when I got into young-adult
novels, John Knowles's A
Separate Peace and Robert Cormier's The
Chocolate War. In fact, Holes would have fit snugly between those
two categories: a sort of literary limbo where children's books bleed into young-adult.
It mixes the light humor and escapist storytelling of the former with the dark
humor and real-world awareness of the latter.
Holes is the story of Stanley Yelnats, whose family lives under a curse
wrought upon them by his "no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather."
(I could explain further, but the unveiling of this backstory is part of the
fun.) The curse has always been something of a family joke to Stanley until
he's caught stealing and sent to Camp Green Lake, a detention center that has
no green, no lake, and isn't much of a camp. Every day Stanley and the other
boys whom we get to know quite well are forced to dig a hole that's exactly
five feet deep and five feet wide (they measure with their shovels). Stanley
isn't sure how this is supposed to build character, but as the story progresses
he becomes reasonably certain there's a method behind the madness. The enigmatic
warden is looking for something in the dried-up lake bed.
What she's searching for becomes clear gradually, during a series of flashbacks
that reveal the history of Green Lake which was once green and a lake. It's
here that Holes likewise reveals itself to be deeper than one might suspect.
The backstory involves an interracial romance and an unforgivable crime of ignorance.
Sachar's refusal to back away from this potentially inflammatory material is
not only courageous but serves to give his novel a resonance it might otherwise
lack, a tragic quality it shares with the aforementioned A Separate Peace
and The Chocolate War.
Stanley is a likable protagonist with whom many young readers, especially boys,
will identify. He's trapped in that preadolescent void where one is suspended
between boy and young man, eager (yet curiously unable) to make the lunge forward.
His uncertainty about his life, his body, his peers, and his place in this world
will be familiar and reassuring to a great many boys struggling with their own
similar issues. And while Stanley's character is strong throughout, he truly
comes alive in the thrilling section when he and his unlikely friend, Zero,
escape from the camp and set off alone across the desert. In these pages, past
and present collide to create an adventure that verges on the mythic.
Sachar manages to entertain while not shying away from the uglier aspects of
human nature. By refusing to pander to an unrealistic ideal with a blandly cheerful
depiction of humanity, or by disguising the ugliness with silly caricatures,
the author opens his readers' eyes to both the beautiful and the horrific, sometimes
simultaneously. While this thought might horrify any number of overprotective
parents, Jungian psychology suggests this is precisely what the human mind requires:
a merging of shadow and light, to create a sense of balance. Hey, I'm not trying
to get esoteric and overanalytical here; all I'm saying is, kids understand
that sometimes life is shit, and their fiction shouldn't try to hide that from
them. Holes gives its readers credit for figuring things out on their own, and
the book's enduring popularity is proof of Sachar's success.
Summer, of course, is the season when kids have a lot more time on their hands
to read the books they'll remember throughout their lives. Holes was first published
in 1998, and so missed my childhood by about a decade. Depriving today's children
of its hilarity, insight, darkness, and excitement is nearly unforgivable.