So far I’ve been very critical about a lot of the books I’ve reviewed on this site. Part of the problem is that I’m not picking up books that would be my first choice – I’m reading my way through a constantly-renewing stack of novels that are being released this summer and fall. So I’m going to take a moment out from all these ARCs (advance reader’s copies) to talk about an old favourite.
Holes doesn’t actually need another good review. Written in 1998, it won the Newbery Medal (and several other prizes), gained enthusiastic and wide-spread acclaim, and has been made into a major motion picture (77% on Rotten Tomatoes). Holes has also been done to death in schools. It makes for an ideal novel study and teachers love using it. I suspect that battles are fought in some schools over who gets to study it in their class. It’s rightly a grade 4/5/6 novel, but I’ve heard of grade 2 teachers reading it to their classes. Imagine the frustration when your class of ten-year-olds informs you with weary blase that they’ve already read the novel you’ve based a whole term around.
So Holes doesn’t need any more ink, virtual or otherwise, spilled on it. But I’m going to slosh some more its way anyway – and I’m going to use what feels like an outdated method (because Letterman uses it, and surely that’s enough to outdate anything?) – the Top Ten List.
Top Ten Reasons Why I Loved Holes
10) Because I read it to two classes of students while in England, and they loved it. In the middle of Essex (actually an eastern corner) I was able to do a terrible American accent and get away with it. They loved it – the accent, the characters, the weird twists and bends. We all had such pleasure settling down to reading time with Holes that they started requesting it. Each time I opened the book and brought out that slow drawl, I felt like we landed up on a dusty desert in North America, and escaped to where yellow-spotted lizards spread agonizing oblivion, and where long-lost treasures and old-world curses can determine your fate.
9) Because of the author, Louis Sachar. I can’t tell you what a soft spot I have for this guy. He’s the author of the Sideways Stories series – books that still make me laugh today. He also wrote There’s a Boy in the Girl’s Bathroom, and while I don’t remember a single scene of it, it surely makes the list as one of the best titles ever for an intermediate novel. Finally, his newest book, The Cardturner, manages to make bridge almost understandable, and quite interesting. So props for that.
8.) Stanley Yelnats and his no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather. Because one is a palindrome, and the other is funny, no matter how many times you read it.
7) Because the plot itself is a palindrome. Or a web. Or a mobeus strip. Or a spiral. Or a braided tapestry. Or something. The story takes place in the present, the past (about a hundred years ago) and the distant past (three generations ago). At the start, Stanley Yelnats is being sent to a detention centre for troubled boys, Camp Green Lake. He is going because everyone believes he stole a pair of used and stinky (but very valuable) sneakers. In order to improve their character, each boy at the camp must dig a hole exactly five feet wide and five feet deep every day. Oh, and did I mention that there is no water at Camp Green Lake – just a deserted dried-up lake bottom filled with holes and deadly yellow-spotted lizards. But read on and you’ll learn that Stanley’s bad luck, the dried-up lake and the camp itself all have their roots in the past. Only with the help of onions, lizards, sploosh, mountains, and a song will the curse of Stanleys great-great-grandfather be lifted and another old wrong righted. The present fixes the past and the past saves the present.
6) Because every detail is used and every detail is important. And because just about every detail is used at least twice – once in the present and also in the past. And sometimes it will be an echo of one, and sometimes of the other.
5) Because it’s exactly the right length and ends exactly when it should. So many books I read are too long: they go on with pointless scenes and plot twists that are there just for the sake of adding length or tiresome but pointless obstacles to the resolution. This book is mindbendingly complex, but it is also elegant in its simplicity. The pacing is perfect and the writing is evocative and sparse. There’s no wasted text, but also no holes (har, har) where you’re just not sure what happened.
4) Because it improves with more readings.
3) Because Sachar deals with issues of race and privilege in a shockingly real and understandable way. The boys at Camp Green Lake are all troubled kids and from a variety of ethnicities. Race isn’t plastered away with political correctness in this book – it is real and tangible. The boys accuse Stanley of practicing slavery when he gets Zero (the outcast at the camp) to dig his holes for him in exchange for reading lessons. In another storyline, a black man is killed for daring to kiss a white woman – and she is cast out of her job and town by an enraged community. Sachar doesn’t try to ignore history or fix it, or even present solutions for the present. And he doesn’t hide from ugly issues but rather makes them the centre of his spiraling narrative.
2) Because it’s funny as well as clever. It doesn’t just try to be funny. It doesn’t just think it’s funny. It is funny.
1) Because even after all the hype and attention, it is isn’t overrated – it still kicks ass.