Detached, we say? Why yes, we do. This isn't a harsh judgment, it's just the way it is. Most of the time, the events of the story are simply related to the reader in a straightforward way, without any commentary. The narrator tells us what happens, and pretty much leaves it at that.
Even when events are fairly dramatic (we're thinking about the fight that breaks out between Zigzag and Zero, or Stanley's attempt to steal the truck), the narrator doesn't give us much information about the characters' emotional reactions. Instead, what we usually get is just a play-by-play of the events themselves. Here's an example from the Zero/Zigzag fight:
Zigzag made a gagging sound, as he desperately tried to pry Zero's arm off of him.
"You're going to kill him!" shouted Mr. Pendanski.
Zero kept squeezing.
Armpit charged into them, freeing Zigzag from Zero's choke hold. The three boys fell to the ground in different directions.
Mr. Pendanski fired his pistol into the air. (30.78-82)
Okay, what just happened? Well, one boy almost choked another to death, a third boy had to intervene and pry the two apart, and a counselor pulled out a gun and fired it. Pretty scary stuff, when you think about it. But we really don't hear about that fear or excitement or whatever else the characters must be feeling in the moment. Plus, we don't get any input from the narrator about what he thinks about the situation either.
The only clue we get, beyond the actual events themselves, is in that one word: "desperately." Not much to go on, overall. Because we have to figure it out for ourselves, sometimes our imaginations run wild. You might have had to break out the tissues a couple times while reading Holes, and when you think about it, those emotions come more from what wasn't said than from what was.
So why would the narrator approach the story this way? Hmm. Does the word "detached" make you think of anyone in the story? Say, Stanley? Like the narrator, Stanley never really tells anyone what he's feeling and always wants to stay on the sidelines of life (at least until the later part of the book). His way of reacting to conflict is usually to just lay low and try not to be noticed. The way Shmoop sees it, the narrator's tone of detachment mirrors the way Stanley feels through much of the book, reinforcing our impression of him as emotionally shut down and unresponsive.
It's not all detached all the time, though. The narrator often does give us clues that point us – be it subtly – toward an interpretation of the story's events. Here's where the "gently ironic" part comes in. Let's look at a passage near the beginning of the book:
If you take a bad boy and make him dig a hole every day in the hot sun, it will turn him into a good boy.
That was what some people thought. (2.3-4)
"That was what some people thought." Hmm…what are we supposed to make of that comment? Just who are these people the narrator is talking about? Does he agree with them? Why does he bring them up at all? It's a little hard to interpret. But one thing's for sure: if the narrator wanted us to take the bad-boy statement at face value, as something he believed without question, he probably would have left it as is. Instead, he adds a little comment, telling us that it's just what "some people" think. Automatically, we're clued into the fact that it's not what everybody thinks.
By putting certain statements together in particular ways, the narrator manages to slyly, gently suggest that there's more than one way of looking at things; that what one person asserts as truth may not necessarily be correct. And he does this all without ever actually telling us what he thinks. Impressive, right?
Given the number of awards Holes has won in the field of children's literature, it's pretty much a no-brainer that the book qualifies for that genre. But even if we couldn't figure it out from all those awards, we would probably notice that the book's protagonist is himself a kid. Although we don't actually know how old Stanley is, we can guess from what we hear of his life at home that he's probably in middle school. Not all books with a child as the main character can be classified as children's literature, of course, but this kid-centric, accessible novel is definitely a YA hit.
Holes also features a bunch of plot elements that are common in children's literature: buried treasure, a dangerous journey, and evil, nasty adult characters (check out anything by Roald Dahl for some great examples of that last one). In fact, these same ingredients also qualify the book as an adventure story. While the book can sure be dark at times, and even a little scary, overall it's a fun, exciting read.
In addition to belonging to the children's literature and adventure genres, Holes is also a great example of magical realism. Why do we call it magical realism? Well, let's do a quick run-through and see how some of the book's features do on the handy-dandy Shmoop Realism Test. In order for an element to pass, you have to be able to imagine the characters or events existing within the realm of possibility in the world as we actually know it. Okay, here we go:
We're not sure about you, but here at Shmoop, we don't actually know anyone whose life is being controlled by a century-old family curse. Or, for that matter, anyone who's been saved from certain death by a mountain formation in the shape of a giant thumb. Since most of the book is pretty realistic, though, with just a few not-so-realistic elements thrown in, we can place it squarely in the world of magical realism.
Let's see… the book is called Holes and it's about, well, holes. What a coincidence. But really, Shmoop doesn't think the title is anything really tricky or fancy. It's just Sachar's way of pointing us to some of the most important themes and symbols in the story. In fact, you might want to check out the "Symbols" section to really get the dirt on holes.
This is no Inception. Not even close. The last chapter of Holes actually ties everything up pretty nicely for the reader. The good get the goods and the bad, well, they get their comeuppance.
So far, so good. But our narrator isn't quite satisfied with happily ever after, is he? Let's take a look. In the last image of the book, we see Zero sitting with his mother (well, we assume it's his mom, at least), and this is how she is described:
She wasn't very old, but her skin had a weathered look to it, almost like leather. Her eyes seemed weary, as if she'd seen too many things in her life that she didn't want to see. (50.37)
We don't get any details about what Zero's mom has been up to since she left him at the park – all that is left to our imaginations. But what we do know is that she's clearly suffered a great deal: the record of it is quite literally written on her face. In all the happiness at the end of the book, Sachar makes sure that we can't forget just what it took for us to get here, and how messy life can really be.
From this point of view, it's important that we notice that that the very last words of the book are sung by Zero's mother, and that they're a revised version of the melancholy but hopeful lullaby that Madame Zeroni first taught to Elya Yelnats:
If only, if only, the moon speaks no reply;
Reflecting the sun and all that's gone by.
Be strong my weary wolf, turn around boldly.
Fly high, my baby bird,
My angel, my only. (50.39)
What do you think about the ending of Holes? Was it satisfying? If Sachar intentionally combines hope and sorrow at the close of the story, what do you think he's trying to tell us?
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.
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.
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.
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.
Although Holes is full of big questions about fate and justice and stuff like that, there really isn't anything in the book that makes reading it too tricky or difficult. The style is pretty straightforward, and there is very little use of figurative language (see the "Style" section for more on this). The story does switch back and forth between time periods (it's really three separate but related stories in one book), but the narrator gives us pretty clear clues about which story we're in, so it's easy to stay oriented. All in all, Holes delivers a lot of fun without asking you to work too hard for it.
Holes doesn't try to give us any big challenges. Sentences tend to be short and to the point, giving us just the information we need and no more. Oh, and there is very little figurative language.
Let's take an example: early on, when the narrator tells us about Stanley's life before Camp Green Lake, the narrator doesn't provide us with much info. He doesn't say that Stanley was as lonely as a cloud. He doesn't even say that Stanley leads a lonely life. All he tells us is that Stanley "didn't have any friends at home" (3.5). We're left to draw our own conclusions about the feelings involved.
And now for another example:
He dug his shovel into the dirt.
It couldn't always be this hot, he thought. Surely it got cooler in December. Maybe then they froze.
He dug his shovel into the dirt.
His skin had gotten tougher. It didn't hurt so much to hold the shovel. (13.4-7)
Notice the short, simple sentences, and the lack of adverbs. Adverb are words that describe how things are done and tend give a little bit of insight into where a character is coming from emotionally. How does Stanley dig his shovel into the dirt? Angrily? Sadly? Wearily? Determinedly? We just don't know.
In the absence of such clues, we're left to make do with simple, plain sentences like "[h]e dug his shovel into the dirt," or "Zero said nothing." All these direct, uncomplicated statements make the story sound kind of a like a newspaper report, or an account from a police blotter. Just the facts, ma'am, just the facts.
(Check out our section on "Tone" for more about how this lack of emotionally descriptive language affects the feeling of the book.)
No figurative language, no adverbs, no feeling: what else could possibly be missing? Well, how about description? Think about it: the few moments where things are described at length – like when we first see the town of Green Lake and hear about its physical beauty and the seeming tranquility of its people – we sit up and take notice. Given the lack of tranquility soon to show up in Green Lake, could this be the narrator's way of drawing our attention to the apparent perfection of the town? Or maybe even suggesting that we look at it more closely, and think about it more deeply than we otherwise might?
Bottom line: there's something to the simplicity of Sachar's language in Holes. Don't knock it till you try it.
Is anyone surprised that holes are a major symbol in a book called Holes?Probably not. But they're still worth taking a look at. There are holes all over the ground at Camp Green Lake, of course, and the boys continue to dig more and more every day.
The holes the boys are forced to dig make us think of some pretty nasty experiences. But holes aren't always a bad thing. How about in Chapter 38, when Stanley digs a hole to get to the water that will eventually save his life? Or in Chapter 43, when Stanley and Zero hide in the holes to protect themselves? And of course, we can't forget that the treasure that saves Stanley's family from poverty comes from deep down in a hole.
That's a lot of holes, we can all agree on that. But there are also more invisible kinds of holes. Think about the holes in the story – what exactly is going on with the curse, anyway? Or how about holes in some of the characters' lives – there's a great big hole in Zero's heart where his mother used to be. (Sounds like a song by Garth Brooks, doesn't it?)
What are all these holes doing in the book? Well, part of the fun of the book, of course, is for the reader to fill in some of the holes himself along the way. Like a mystery of sorts, Holes is always giving us little bits of information that don't seem particularly relevant, only for us to find out much later that some of those bits were the keys to the puzzle all along. Maybe the book is suggesting that life is like that too. Maybe it's the little bits that matter, and maybe the things we're missing are just as important as the things we have.
The landscape in and around Camp Green Lake is practically another character in Holes. Throughout the book, the natural world seems to respond to the emotional and moral lives of the characters, developing right along with them. For instance, the ground the campers dig in is hard and barren, just like the campers' lives. And as Stanley and Zero move farther away from the camp and closer to their fateful trip up the mountain, the landscape around them becomes much more welcoming.
Louis Sachar can be a subtle writer, but there's one time when we're just hit over the head with the symbolic nature of, um, nature. We're thinking about the lack of rain that destroys the town of Green Lake and shrivels up Trout Walker's fortune. The rain stopped right after Sam's murder, and the drought seems to be a punishment for the immoral people who lived there. But once Green Lake is redeemed (by Stanley and Zero), the rain falls again. And you know what that means: a new beginning not only for the characters, but for the land itself.
Mmm, onions. Or not. Even though they are one of the stinkier foods out there, we kind of love what they do for Holes. After all, it's the wild onions that keep Stanley and Zero alive on the mountain and then allow them to survive the swarm of yellow-spotted lizards.
These bulbs also have some important symbolic meanings, too. They are most closely associated with Sam, who uses them to make his wonderful healing powders, creams, and ointments. When you think about it, onions are pretty much the lowliest of foods. Along with carrots and other yummy things, they grow in the dirt, and the edible part actually grows underground. Like Sam himself, onions are humble and unassuming: there's nothing fancy about them.
But wait: what is it they always say about onions? "It's like peeling an onion," right? Well, that's kind of the moral of the story here in Holes, isn't it? You have to look further – dig deeper, we might say – to get to what really matters.
Yes, that's right. Hamlet gets flowers, Beowulf gets swords, and Holes gets body odor. As far as symbols and imagery go, it may not be the grandest or most poetic, but it's definitely one of the most fun. From the stinky foot fungus that Clyde Livingston and Trout Walker share to the powerful smell that comes off of Stanley and Zero as they drive away with Ms. Morengo, there are a lot of pretty gross body smells going on in this book.
Mostly this image is played for laughs – how can we not smile when we hear about a character whose "two feet smelled like a couple of dead fish" (23.10)? But these odors also remind us that there's often a big difference between what we think of something based on first impressions (e.g., smells), and what it actually turns out to be once we know more about it.
This one's a little tricky. For the most part, we have a narrator who knows everything there is to know about what's happening with Stanley, but not much else. Although in some sense we don't get as much information as we might expect about Stanley's feelings (check out the "Tone" and "Writing Style" sections for more on this), we definitely see things from inside Stanley's head and hear a lot about how he's experiencing the world. The other characters only appear to us as Stanley sees them. We never know what Zero is thinking, for instance – only what he does, or what he tells Stanley.
This is a great way to build sympathy for Stanley, particularly because Stanley starts out as such an isolated character. He doesn't really confide in anyone (or talk to anyone, for that matter), and he's not exactly what you'd call a man of action. Hearing his thoughts and seeing the world through his eyes may be the only way that we can really get to know him.
Even in the Kate Barlow and Elya Yelnats parts of the story, the narrative perspective remains pretty much the same, just with different characters. We hear about the events of the stories as Kate and Elya experience them – Stanley wasn't even born then, after all – and we share their thoughts as we go along.
It doesn't end there, folks. At certain points in the story – at the very beginning, when Sam is murdered, and in the last chapter, to name a few – the narrator's view becomes much less limited. It's almost as if he's suddenly looking down from a great height, able to travel across large stretches of time and zero in on tiny details all at once. (We want to know how we can get in on this deal, by the way.)
And bonus: when he's using this Super Omniscient voice, the narrator often steps out of the story and addresses the reader directly. Sometimes this takes the form of second-person voice: as in, "you don't want to be bitten by a yellow-spotted lizard" (1.12). Other times, he just talks about us as "the reader": as in, "the reader probably still has some questions" (50.3). The most stand-out instance of this comes after Sam's death, where we find the following passage:
That all happened one hundred and ten years ago. Since then, not one drop of rain has fallen on Green Lake.
You make the decision: Whom did God punish? (26.43-44)
Whoa, now. In a book whose narrator is generally un-intrusive, this is a pretty startling moment, don't you think? How does the change of voice affect how you feel or think about what happened to Sam? Is there something that the narrator accomplishes by addressing the reader directly that he couldn't have done if he had used a different approach?
Stanley has already been arrested when we first meet him, but the story really begins before his arrest. Stanley is overweight, isolated, and unhappy. His parents are loving and kind, but he has no friends and he is regularly bullied at school. His father's inventions have been consistent failures, and the family is desperately poor. The situation is pretty sad, but at least it can't really get any worse… right?
Okay, so maybe it can get worse. In addition to being poor and unhappy, Stanley is now a convicted felon. Stanley's parents, hoping for the best, choose to have him sent to Camp Green Lake instead of to jail. Unfortunately, as Stanley soon discovers, Camp Green Lake is a hot, miserable place run by a borderline crazy woman interested only in extracting free labor from the boys she's supposed to be helping. Luckily, though, Stanley does what he's always done: he keeps his head down, doesn't make waves, and adapts to the realities of his new situation. He even begins to make a friend. He may still be unhappy, but at least things are on an even keel again.
Just when Stanley has worked out how he's going to survive his time at Camp Green Lake, everything changes. His new friend Zero, deciding he just can't take it anymore, runs off into the desert with nothing but a shovel to keep him company. As he waits (along with the rest of the camp) for Zero to give up and come back, Stanley finds himself tormented by guilt and worry about what his friend might be going through. Ugh.
In an uncharacteristic display of initiative, Stanley makes a desperate attempt to help his friend. This is a defining moment for Stanley: a departure both literally and figuratively. His compassion for Zero encourages him to risk the (admittedly not-so-awesome) balance he's managed to achieve at Camp Green Lake. Whatever happens from here on out, things will never be the same for Stanley Yelnats.
After a fateful trip up a mountain and back, Zero and Stanley head back to camp and find what seems to be a pretty major treasure. Our hearts leap, only to plunge way back down when the boys are captured by the Warden and realize they are in the heart of a yellow-spotted lizard nest. Yikes. How are they going to get out of this one?
When the tension is at its highest, the book manages to ease us into a resolution. With the help of Stanley's new lawyer Ms. Morengo, the Texas Attorney General, and the sunlight that chases the yellow-spotted lizards away, Stanley and Zero find themselves still alive (phew) and released from Camp Green Lake. Stanley's father has invented a promising new product, Stanley has custody of the treasure suitcase, and it even starts to rain. We don't know exactly how everything's going to turn out yet, but things sure are looking up.
In the book's final chapter, the narrator ties up a lot of loose ends and sets the reader's mind to rest. We find out that bad things have happened to the bad characters and good things have happened to the good characters – all is as it should be. The narrator does remind us gently that not all the suffering endured can be wiped away and forgotten quite so easily as we might wish (see our "What's Up With the Ending?" section for more details), but all in all this is everything we could hope for in a conclusion.
The only real shout-outs in Holes come from the poetry that Miss Katherine and Sam share while he is working on the schoolhouse (25.25). It's pretty sweet stuff. The book mentions two poets in particular, Edgar Allan Poe and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
Longfellow wrote lyric poetry, often drawing his subject matter from mythology and legend. Poe, who is probably best known for his disturbing short stories and for his poem "The Raven" (of "Nevermore" fame), often wrote tales of heartsick lovers haunted by the death of their beloved – a little foreshadowing, anyone?
Just to give you a taste of the kind of thing we're talking about, here's a passage from Poe's poem "Annabel Lee." (Bonus: this is the poem that Miss Katherine and Sam recite to each other in the movie version of Holes.)
For the moon never beams without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise but I feel the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling – my darling – my life and my bride,
In the sepulchre there by the sea,
In her tomb by the sounding sea. (lines 34- 41)