Holes by Louis Sachar Explained
Holes is a novel by an American writer, Louis Sachar, first published in 1999. It had great success among critics and became immediately loved among the most demanding readers. In 1999, the novel won a Newbery Medal for being “the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children”, and a U.S. National Book Award for Young People’s Literature in 1998.
The book talks about a teenager, Stanley Yelnats, who is sent to Green Lake Camp for a crime he did not commit. He faces difficult situations in the camp, finds friends and enemies, and radically transforms his own character. Readers also get to know Stanley’s ancestors and the reason for all their misfortune — "no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing great-great-grandfather".
Another storyline focuses on the town of Green Lake (the place where Green Lake Camp is located). It involves some interesting plot twists that tie the book together.
Ready to set off on this quest that involves some magic, a horrible curse, true love, revenge, and…some digging? Grab a shovel and scroll down for the character list.
Stanley Yelnats is the protagonist of the novel. He is bullied at school, is overweight and unhappy with himself. His family was supposedly cursed a long time ago, but despite this, Stanley stays positive and has a kind heart. When he arrives to Camp Green Lake the other boys seem to pressure him into being rude and cruel to others, but he resists them and stays true to his beliefs. He is a true friend as he follows Zero into the desert, even knowing there is no water around them there. When he climbs the mountain, dehydrated and exhausted, his persistence and strength show off:
“Higher and higher he climbed. His strength came from somewhere deep inside himself and also seemed to come from the outside as well.”(p. 192)
Even though Stanley might seem soft and as if he just goes with the flow, he truly is a brave and strong young man who seeks the truth and cares for his loved ones.
Hector Zeroni, also known as Zero, is a boy Stanley meets at Camp Green Lake. He has even more trouble fitting in than Stanley. Other boys have no respect for him, counselors call him “stupid”, and nobody wants to be his friend. Regardless, he is an excellent digger, is always quiet and does his job very well. He is good at math, but he does not know how to read. He feels guilty for stealing Clyde Livingston’s shoes—the ones that resulted in Stanley’s false conviction. He feels ashamed, but he cannot confess to Stanley that he was the reason Stanley was brought here. Instead, Zero tries to do nice things for him, like digging his hole when Stanley gets taken to the Warden. Zero’s patience for Camp Green Lake eventually runs out and he puts up a fight before running away:
“I know you mean well, Stanley, but face it, Zero’s too stupid to learn to read. That’s what makes his blood boil. Not the hot sun.”
“I’m not digging another hole,” said Zero . . . Zero took the shovel. Then he swung it like a baseball bat. The metal blade smashed across Mr. Pendanski’s face.” (p.151)
This episode shows that Zero, even though he is small and quiet, can stand up for himself, protect his interests and punish the people who constantly belittle him. Hitting a counselor in the face with a shovel also requires a lot of grit, which he has plenty of.
Madame Zeroni was the friend of Elya Yelnats who gifted him a piglet to help him win the heaviest pig contest. She was a Gypsy (in reality just Egyptian) and was known to hold special knowledge and have powers. She was compassionate with Elya’s problems but she tried to stay realistic. In a little harsh yet honest way, in speaking about Myra, she told him:
“Can she push a plow? Can she milk a goat? No, she is too delicate. Can she have an intelligent conversation? No, she is silly and foolish. Will she take care of you when you are sick? No, she is spoiled and will only want you to take care of her. …” (p.47)
She understood that Elya loved Myra very much, but she wanted to show him that she was not the right person for him. Madame Zeroni was a wise and practical woman.
In return for Madame Zeroni’s help, she asked him to carry her up the mountain—because she had only one leg and wanted him to sing a song to her. When Elya failed to do so, she cursed his whole family for eternity. In the book she seems like a strong and intelligent woman, even if her advice and requests might sound ridiculous. She was righteous and wanted people to keep their promises. Her curse seems cruel, but fair.
The Warden is the most important decision-maker at Camp Green Lake. She is a tall red-haired woman who wears cowboy boots and a cowboy hat. She seems extremely cruel and cold-hearted. She does not care for boys, their well-being, or the inhumane conditions they work in. The only thing she is interested in is the treasure that was hidden at Camp Green Lake. When Stanley and Zero discover the treasure, she gets ready to sacrifice their lives just to get her hands on the suitcase:
“Let her ask questions,” said the Warden. “Just so long as I have the suitcase, I don’t care what happens. Do you know how long . . .” Her voice trailed off, then started up again. “When I was little I’d watch my parents dig holes, every weekend and holiday. When I got bigger, I had to dig, too. Even on Christmas.” (p. 243 )
This quote helps readers realize that the meaning of her whole life was to dig and look for treasure. It is sad, and the readers end up feeling sorry for her and how miserable she is.
Mr. Sir is a manager at Camp Green Lake. He is rude, and has a very bad outlook of all the boys coming to the camp. When he has an incident with Stanley, he takes him to the Warden, who scratches Mr. Sir with snake-venom nail polish. His face becomes red and swollen. The Warden did it to let Mr. Sir know that he is the one who should control the boys and he should not bother her with such problems. Instead of making sense out of the situation, he gets extremely angry with Stanley and does not give him any water for three straight days at the digging site. His actions are inhumane and ridiculous. If anything, he behaves even more childish than the teenage boys he supervises. His favorite phrase to say is; “this isn’t a Girl Scout camp”— which conveys a lot about his character. He is strict and he lets everybody know how tough it is to be in Camp Green Lake under his supervision.
Miss Katherine/Kissin' Kate Barlow was a schoolteacher who resided at the town of Green Lake. At first, she is a very sweet and kind young girl:
“She was a wonderful teacher, full of knowledge and full of life. The children loved her . . . She taught classes in the evening for adults, and many of the adults loved her as well. She was very pretty.” (p.70)
She is strong and independent. She stands up to all the racial slur people say towards her loved one, Sam, and asks all the people to be kind to each other, regardless of race. She does not cave in, and resists Trout Walker and his rudeness. The death of her loved one, Sam the Onion Man, turns her into a murderous outlaw who robs and kills in cold blood. She evokes feelings of deep sorrow and regret as she is a perfect example of what a tragedy can do to a young and innocent soul.
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Meet Stanley Yelnats
The story starts off with a chubby shy teenager, Stanley Yelnats IV, being sent to Camp Green Lake. He was accused of stealing a pair of sneakers that belong to Charles Livingston—a famous baseball player. Stanley tells the court that he didn’t steal the shoes, rather they fell on him from the sky, but nobody believes him. They give him a choice: jail or Camp Green Lake. Stanley, who has never been to a camp before, does not hesitate a second and is excited to go.
When Stanley arrives, he encounters a great disappointment. Camp Green Lake is not really a camp in a traditional sense; it is more of a work camp where boys his age are forced to dig holes all day long. If someone finds something that might be of interest to the Warden, they can rest for the rest of the day. Although, nobody is certain what exactly the purpose of digging is and what they are looking for. They have counselors watching over them and bringing water to the digging site. Mr. Sir and Mr. Pendanski warn Stanley that there is nowhere to run as there is not a drop of water for the 100 miles around them. Also, they tell him about the yellow-spotted lizards — dangerous creatures that can bite a person to death, and, get ready, the holes are full of them. Maybe jail, after all, was a better option.
Elya Yelnats and His Pig
As Stanley starts digging his hole, which is extremely difficult for him considering his heavy weight, the author jumps back in time to talk about Stanley’s great-great-grandfather, Elya.
The events take place in Latvia. A young fellow then, Elya Yelnats falls in love with a local beauty, Myra Menke. Her father wants her to marry a pig farmer, Igor, who claims to have the heaviest pig. Elya is desperate because he dearly loves Myra and wants to marry her himself. He seeks for help from his friend, Madame Zeroni. She gives Elya a little pig and tells him that he has to carry the pig up the mountain every day. There, the pig will drink from a stream while Elya sings to it. This will help his pig become big and fat, just like Myra’s father wants. Elya is tremendously happy and grateful with her advice. In return, Madame Zeroni asks him to carry her up that same mountain and sing to her. Despite the weird conditions, Elya accepts them, grabs the pig, and diligently cares for it. Although when the day comes to weigh contestants’ pigs, Elya realizes that Myra had forgotten him and does not love him. Heartbroken, he rashly gets on a boat to America and forgets all about his promise to Madame Zeroni.
Nothing but bad luck came to the Yelnats family since that time. Stanley’s father never becomes a successful inventor, and poor Stanley gets prosecuted as a result of a mere coincidence.
Meanwhile at Camp Green Lake Stanley tries to fit in. The conditions are harsh: limited water supplies, showers that do not last more than five minutes, two changes of clothes and endless digging. Stanley meets all the boys from his tent: X-Ray, Squid, Magnet, Armpit, Zigzag, and Zero. X-Ray has been there the longest. Once, when Stanley finds a golden tube initialed “KB” he gives it to X-Ray so he can rest for the remainder of the day. The Warden orders the boys to dig deeper in the area where X-Ray supposedly found the tube. Stanley realizes that the Warden is looking for something very special.
Zero, a short African American boy who digs the fastest, confesses to Stanley that he cannot read. Stanley claims to not know how to teach anything like that and refuses to help him. Meanwhile, during one of the digging shifts, Magnet steals a bag of sunflower seeds from Mr. Sir, who constantly eats them. While the boys pass around the bag and munch on the seeds, Stanley drops the bag in his hole. He takes the blame for it and is taken to the Warden, who instead punishes Mr. Sir for disturbing her. When Stanley comes back, he finds his hole completely dug. Zero did it for him. The two boys come to an agreement: Stanley will teach Zero how to read if Zero helps Stanley dig his holes.
Kate Barlow and the Onion Man
Another flashback in the story takes readers to the town of Green Lake, 110 years ago. There, Kate Barlow is introduced as a sweet and kind schoolteacher. She falls in love with Sam, an African American man, who sells onions and various home remedies, jams and ointments all made of onions. Kate and Sam fall in love, but they are judged by nearly everyone in town for their inter-racial relationship. The town ends up having a riot, and in a racial clash Sam is shot dead. His killer was Charles Walker, Kate’s admirer who got very mad when she turned him down. Kate makes revenge her mission: she kills everyone who gets in her way and kisses them with her red lipstick after murdering them. That is how she acquires her nickname, Kissin’ Kate.
She becomes a murderous outlaw and continues for another 20 years. When she finally returns to Green Lake, Charles Walker and his wife Linda catch her. They demand the location of the place where she hid all the treasure she acquired on her quests, but a yellow-spotted lizard bites her. While she sits dying, Katherine tells them to start digging. So, yes, you guessed it right, the Warden searches for Kate’s treasure. The “KB” golden tube is only the beginning!
Zero, tired of bullying at the camp, puts up a fight with Mr. Pendanski and escapes in the desert. Stanley steals Mr. Sir’s water truck and tries to go after Zero, but he crashes it and flees. He searches for days and becomes exhausted without a drop of water. He finally finds Zero by a tall mountain, but he is also exhausted and cannot even walk. In search of water, Stanley decides to go up the mountain and carries Zero with him. He steps into something muddy where he finally discovers some water and…onions!
The boys spend a couple of days recovering, drinking water and eating onions. They have a lot of intimate talks. At some point, Zero confesses that he stole Charles Livingston’s shoes. His mother left him, and he was living in the orphanage where the shoes were supposed to be auctioned. When Zero realized how valuable the shoes were, he left them on the hood of a car, and that is how Stanley ended up finding them.
The Last Hole
The boys decide to go back to the camp to dig some more to find Kate Barlow’s treasure. They dig at Stanley’s site, exactly where they found the golden tube. Shortly, they find the treasure chest and they realize they’ve just dug their last hole. Right when they are about to take it out of the hole, Mr. Sir, Mr. Pendanski and the Warden show up and ask them to give up the suitcase. They hesitate to take it by force because the hole that the boys are sitting in is covered in yellow-spotted lizards, who are also crawling all over them. They do not bite the boys, because they have been feeding on nothing but water and onions, and the onion juice has lizard-repelling properties.
The boys manage to keep the suitcase and return home safely with the help of Stanley’s lawyer, Ms. Morengo. Stanley discovers that his father managed to invent a bad foot-odor cure and becomes rich. Stanley and Zero, whose actual name turns out to be Hector Zeroni (yes, he is Madame Zeroni’s great-great-grandson), split the treasure. Not only does Stanley receive treasure, but he also breaks his family curse— "the great-great-grandson of Elya Yelnats carried the great-great-great-grandson of Madame Zeroni up the mountain". Zero finds his mom, and generations later all Zeronis and Yelnats have a huge party together.
Sachar has some very distinct and ongoing themes intervened in the narrative. They include a lot of very important concepts like:
- Fate — the story of the family curse by Madame Zeroni has a huge impact on the Yelnats family. It affected all the generations of their family until it was broken. Although, it is still a fairy tale element that makes a clever reader question whether the curse really existed, or is merely an excuse for all the failures the family encountered.
- Justice — Stanley is accused of a crime he did not commit, and he is punished for it. The reader has an opportunity to rethink the modern criminal justice system and note its weaknesses. Another side of justice that we see is in relation to Kissin’ Kate and her murders. Her loved one was killed and she attempts to fight for justice in her own ways and becomes a criminal.
- Choices — characters throughout the book face many situations where their choices affect their lives. Elya Yelants chooses to go to America and neglects the promise he had given to Madame Zeroni. His choice influences his life and generations after him. Then, Stanley chooses to go after Zero, which also has plenty of consequences for his family, this time positive. Here, themes of choice and fate are contradictory: do characters determine with their actions what will happen to them, or are they merely predetermined plans of fate?
- Power — many characters throughout the story exercise and abuse power. Mr. Sir and Mr. Pendanski have absolute control over the boys and their time at Camp Green Lake. They even decide when they have water—a necessity without which survival is impossible. When Mr. Sir does not see eye to eye with Stanley, he demonstratively pours water on the ground instead of giving it to him. He therefore shows him who is in charge, and emphasizes that Stanley and other kids are nothing compared to him.
- Transformation — Stanley undergoes many transformations in the story. He gets to Green Lake Camp as an abused and bullied teenager, but through a series of relationships with other boys he becomes more confident and ends up being able to stand up for himself. Another vivid transformation happens to Katherine Barlow. At first, she is a sweet and caring schoolteacher. Later, she becomes a murderer who cold-heartedly kills everyone who gets in her way.
You might also be interested in reading the Great Expectations summary.
There are a lot of symbols throughout the book, and many of them have multiple meanings and connotations.
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First and foremost are the holes themselves. Besides being the name of the book, the holes are one of the constant things that surround Stanley, and are involved in both literal and metaphorical symbolism. Holes in the book represent hardship and exhaustive physical labor, hopelessness, and monotony. Sometimes, holes have a positive effect: like when Stanley and Zero find treasure. Also, as told in the last part of the book, “Filling in the Holes” means closure for the boys; Stanley broke his family curse and Zero found his mother. They are whole again and have acquired the things they had been missing in their lives.
Nature and weather are very important symbols in the novel. The environment that the boys are placed in at Camp Green Lake is very severe. The ground they dig is as stiff and difficult to dig in as their lives are difficult. When Stanley and Zero run away from the camp, they realize that Mr. Sir was right, and that there is no water to be found near them. Although, the closer they move to the mountains, the greener the landscape around them gets. The mountain is a symbol of their liberation, personal freedom and life improvement. The symbolism involving nature is also seen in the other storyline involving the town of Green Lake 110 years ago. It never rains after Sam the Onion Man is murdered. This way, the author in a metaphorical way shows that the inhabitants of Green Lake are punished for their cruelty, lack of morals and racism.
Other, less significant symbols include onions, the ones Sam sells, which represent protection, good health, positivity; yellow-spotted lizards which are symbols of danger, death, and fear; and water, which represents hope and reward. Stanley and Zero strive to find water in order to survive, and Elya Yelnats is supposed to take Madame Zeroni for some water to protect his family from a horrible curse.
“Holes” is a fabulous book that includes mystery, fairy tales and real social problems all at once. Through the eyes of teenage boys we see racism, fatalism, karma in action, kindness, true love and faithful friendship.
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