Camp Green Lake, then (nineteenth-century) and now; nineteenth-Century Latvia
Some of the best things in life come in threes: Musketeers, Blind Mice, Stooges – the list goes on. Another fun set of three is the setting in Holes. The main part of the story, of course, takes place at Camp Green Lake, more or less in the present day; this is where we get to know Stanley, and where his story plays out. Interwoven throughout Stanley's story, though, are two others: the tale of Stanley's great-great-grandfather Elya, and the account of Miss Katherine Barlow in the old town of Green Lake.
Characters from the three stories never directly interact with each other – Stanley doesn't know about Miss Katherine, for instance, or how she came to be Kissin' Kate – but the reader gets to hear all three stories. That means we get to see all the connections that not even the people living the stories get to know.
Camp Green Lake, Now
Louis Sachar has said that, while all his other books began with a character, Holes "has always been about a place – Camp Green Lake" (source). Besides the final chapter, which is really just a wrap-up to bring us up to date, the action of the book begins and ends with the landscape. "There is no lake at Camp Green Lake," is the very first thing we are told (1.1) and Camp Green Lake plays a vital role all the way through to that first drop of rain that falls as we bid it farewell.
So yeah, we'd say setting is pretty important here.
Unbearably hot and dry, full of dangerous animals and cracked, difficult terrain, Camp Green Lake is most definitely not a nice place to be. But it's important to note that it's also a place that transforms Stanley, a place where he finds happiness for the first time in his life. So it can't be all that bad, right? And think about it: if it weren't for Stanley's interaction with the landscape, all the holes he digs, the weight he loses, and the muscles he develops, he would never have been able to survive the climb up to God's Thumb, much less carry Zero there.
At every step, Camp Green Lake gives Stanley what he needs (whether it be clues to where the treasure lies, or onions and muddy water), keeping him alive and spurring him onward. So be careful before you judge a book by its cover.
Way Back When
Current Camp Green Lake is a pretty nasty place to be – on the surface at least. But the Green Lake of yore (i.e. in the nineteenth century, when Miss Katherine and Sam were around) is pretty much perfect. The narrator takes care to tell us about the pink blossoms of the peach trees, the lake full of "clear cool water" (23.1), and the yearly town picnic where the people dance and sing and celebrate their wholesome country life. What is this, an episode of Little House on the Prairie?
But just like we learn that current Camp Green Lake isn't as gross as it seems, old Green Lake turns out not to be so awesome. Even before the outbreak of violence, hatred, and murder that pushes Miss Katherine into her new life as Kissin' Kate Barlow, the narrator hints that all is not as it appears. Most of those beautiful peach trees, it turns out, are owned by stinky, disrespectful Trout Walker, the son of the richest man in the county. Even more disturbing is the narrator's sly, brief comment that "Sam wasn't allowed to attend classes because he was a Negro, but they let him fix the building" (25.24). Ugh.
In the 1880s, Texas was a place of violence and unrest. The American Civil War had only ended a couple decades earlier, and race was still a big issue. White southerners were being forced to share political power with African-Americans for the first time in American history, and tensions were running high. Bottom line: it's not hard to see how a simple kiss between a black man and a white woman might have been so explosive.
The Old Country
Elya Yelnats gets his screen time about thirty or forty years before the Kate and Sam romance; we know this because Elya's son is a grown man when Kissin' Kate is terrorizing the countryside. Elya's story goes down in Latvia. The capital of Latvia is Riga. That has no sway on the story, but we're just impressed with ourselves for remembering that from social studies class, so we figured we'd mention it.
Double whammy geography/history snack time. Latvia is a country in northern Europe, and in the nineteenth century, its population (like that of most other European countries) would have been mostly rural. We're talking about the kind of place where having the biggest pig really might be an important sign of wealth. And where daughters would have little say in deciding whom they get to marry.
Most importantly, though, nineteenth-century Latvia was a place and a time where a lot of the things we take for granted now – things like science, reason, and even indoor plumbing – hadn't really reached most of the population. In other words, the perfect place for a story about an old gypsy curse dooming someone for all eternity.