Where did we get this assumption that children’s books should only be enjoyed by children? That an adult who reads children’s books for their own entertainment is in some sort of state of arrested development? Oh, there are some very silly children’s books, no question. But there are just as many silly adult books. And there is something about a well-written children’s or young adult novel that can cut right to the heart of a matter, without all the extraneous navel-gazing that fills so many novels intended for grown-up audiences. Not to mention that the writing of a book for young audiences requires tremendous discipline, a gift for conveying meaning with just a few well-chosen words, and the ability to empathize with young people without condescending to them.
From his book Holes, I would say it’s pretty clear that Louis Sachar has that gift. He had already won over young audiences with his goofy and fanciful “Wayside School” books, but this novel was something different, something very special. It straddles the line between children and YA, dealing with serious issues in a way that isn’t off-putting to young people. Those issues range from injustice in the juvenile court system, poverty, homelessness, racism, vengeance and forgiveness. Yet for all of these intense themes, it’s not particularly preachy and the plot never plods.
There are actually three plotlines, each taking place in a different era of history, yet all of them curiously intertwined. The primary story is about Stanley Yelnats IV, a boy who has been wrongfully accused of stealing a famous pair of shoes and is sent to Camp Green Lake as punishment. This facility for juvenile delinquents has just one required activity: digging holes in the vast arid ground where Green Lake used to be. So the narrative will flash back now and then to the days when the lake was still there, when the local schoolteacher Miss Katherine falls in love with the kind-hearted peddler Sam. Unfortunately, Sam happens to be black, and their innocent romance ends in tragedy. The third plotline also tells of a past misdeed that brings misfortune, as we learn of Stanley’s ancestor, Elya Yelnats, and his broken promise to Madame Zeroni, the mysterious woman he made a bargain with. It’s rumored that their family was cursed with bad luck because of his failure to follow through on his side of the bargain.
What is truly astonishing is how deftly Sachar weaves all these threads together, holding back just enough information to keep us guessing, then bringing out the revelations at just the right moments. Eventually, all the holes are filled in quite satisfyingly. It’s a truly stunning moment when Stanley unwittingly comes across the chance to break the family’s curse. I know I never saw it coming. I was too old to have read this book as a child, but it was plenty impressive to me as a college student. And the film is one of best adaptations I’ve ever seen. Read it, then watch it, then read it again.