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Saturday, July 17th, 2004



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), Howliday Inn (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.

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