Louis Sachar: Holes
Bloomsbury 2000 (1998)
This immensely readable YA novel is a delight: it presents like real-life contemporary fiction but is littered with almost impossible coincidences; it feels like a piece of fantasy at times but is unrelenting in its portrayal of societal realities; it’s peopled by individuals who one moment may be stereotypical and the next become complex and unpredictable.
Stanley Yelnats has been accused and convicted of a crime he didn’t commit. His sentence is to go to Camp Green Lake, a correctional institute where boys are expected to dig regulation-sized holes to build good character.
And yet all is not as it seems: we are already alerted to the fact that Stanley didn’t commit a crime, that — suspiciously — his name is palindromic, that the institute is neither green nor by a lake, and that everyone there is a metaphorical square peg who will never fit the round hole they’re expected to dig.
Why do we really dig holes? To grow food — to find water — to discover treasure. What can we use a digging implement for? To dig, obviously, but also to measure, perhaps to maim, maybe as a support. And why do we write stories? To entertain, yes, but also to explore, to reveal, to inform. And because we’re human.
Holes is in fact a fairytale about being human, and about showing humanity. Stanley has to battle ogres and dragons and achieve impossible tasks (that is, warders, poisonous lizards, and crossing a desert without water) but he is as nothing unless he shows compassion, laced with a generous dollop of pragmatism. The novel has several layers, like the onions that feature in the plot, but like the peaches that also figure here it has sweetness to mitigate the sharp taste and a stone at the centre to represent essential truths.
And of course nobody is known by their true names: for a start, Stanley is called Caveman; his fellow detainees have nicknames like X-ray, Armpit, Zigzag, Magnet and Zero, masks to both conceal and reveal who they really are.
Sacher writes convincingly of harsh penal conditions, bullying, mind games, desert hazards and the mind-numbing tedium of repetitive back-breaking work; this all feels very realistic. At other times there is an epic quality to the narrative, with black humour occasionally breaking the bleakness; at one sttage King Solomon’s Mines might suggest itself, another a biblical spell in the wilderness, or a touch of magic realism where weather is concerned.
Sacher’s novel also has an archetypal quality about it, though it wears it lightly: the chapters are short yet more-ish, the characters familiar yet surprising, the coincidences incredible yet easy to accept. There are backstories introduced in a matter-of-fact way but at just the right point take us forward.
I enjoyed Holes very much, its cinematic quality so easy to transfer to the big screen that Disney not unexpectedly filmed it, with the screenplay by the author himself. But nothing beats reading — especially when the story’s resolution largely depends on a formerly illiterate character having learnt to read.