Love can sometimes make us do stupid things. And those stupid things can have unforeseen and far-reaching consequences. In this riveting children’s mystery, our protagonist, Stanley Yelnats IV, is living with the consequences of his great-great-grandfather Elya Yelnats’ love for Myra Menke, and what he did in an attempt to win her hand in marriage.
Elya has no money or property to give Myra’s father as a dowry, so he goes to Madame Zeroni, who proposes a way for Elya to get a leg in the race by giving him a piglet to fatten up and present to Mr. Menke, on the condition that, once he proposes, Elya does her the favour of carrying her up a mountain to drink from the stream. Elya doesn’t get the girl, but rather than bring back Madame Zeroni’s pig, he gives it to Myra as a wedding present, and leaves for America, heartbroken, and forgetting to keep his end of the bargain.
As a result, Elya and all of his descendants are cursed. Brilliant but haunted by bad luck, all of the Yelnats men seem to find themselves losing fortunes, never quite making the grade, or constantly being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The latter is how Stanley Yelnats IV was accused of stealing a pair of sneakers and sent to Camp Green Lake, a juvenile detention and disciplinary center for boys, in the middle of the desert. Run by The Warden (Ms. Walker), a vicious woman who regularly abuses and spies on the boys, Mr. Sir, her right-hand man and self-designated attack dog, and Mr. Pendanski, who appears to be friendly, but is in fact just a calculating manipulator, Camp Green Lake is a place completely void of foliage, water, and compassion.
Unlucky Stanley soon realizes just how fortunate he’s been all his life when he meets the other boys of Tent D. With the exception of one other White kid, the other boys are just throwaway Black and Brown kids abused, neglected, and exploited by the system, kids who’ve never had the luxury of a loving home, and who suffer from gross poverty, as well physical and psychological illnesses. Despite whatever limitations and personal issues they might have, all of the boys are expected to spend their days digging holes in blistering heat for several hours a day, in order to “build character”.
Stanley is out of place, which isn’t new for him at all, but soon finds a friend in Zero, the best and fastest digger at Camp Green Lake, but a kid who’s also bullied heavily because he can’t read or write. He and Stanley become friends when Zero volunteers to do some of Stanley’s digging for him, in exchange for reading lessons. This makes them both enemies of the other boys, as well as raises the suspicions of the camp counselors and warden, who don’t want to see the children succeed at all, least of all Zero. With no family whatsoever, and having been in the system nearly all of his life, Zero is especially vulnerable at Camp Green Lake. As Stanley and Zero navigate the warden and the other inmates, we learn of the warden’s insidious plans, Green Lake’s dark past, and an invisible thread linking Stanley, Zero, and the warden.
As our story dips in between the past and the present, from old Europe to the New World, where the warden’s grandfather was once a wealthy man, and Camp Green Lake used to be a thriving community with an actual lake, we pick up clues, make relationships, and learn over and over again that every aspect of the past shapes the present; nothing exists in a vacuum, and no one can outrun their fate.
Though I’m not completely sure it was meant to be one, Holes is an incredibly honest portray of the juvenile detention as well as the prison industrial complex. Majority poor, Black, and under-educated? Check! Even our White protagonist cannot distract us from the gross treatment of his fellow inmates, many of whom ended up there simply because no one wanted them, and who were reminded everyday that because (unlike Stanley) they didn’t have a family waiting for their return, that they were very much expendable. Not only are the boys mistreated within the camp, but because they have officially been labelwd juvenile delinquents, people outside the camp feel comfortable disposing of them as well.
As Stanley and Zero’s friendship grows, so does their knowledge of the truth behind the warden’s obsession with having them dig holes. Much like the prison industrial complex, which is meant to rehabilitate but only ever lines the pockets of corporate capitalists, the holes being dug by the exploitative, illegal child labour at Camp Green Lake is done in the hopes of lining the warden’s pockets. The safety and personal growth of these children is never a consideration just as the welfare of the hundreds of thousands of inmates packed into the prisons of the United States isn’t a consideration. Away from the prying eyes of good citizens, these boys, like those prisoners, are subject to all manner of abuse and dehumanization.
Brimming with mystery, suspense, friendship, and courage, Holes is a story with a lot of holes, but it gives you just enough to make you rethink family, fortune, incarceration, and the importance of keeping your word. This children’s book should be mandatory reading for most adults, those of us who most need to learn compassion for the imprisoned, but it is also one of the most well-written and age-appropriate children’s novels I’ve ever had the privilege to read; grappling several adult themes in a way that middle-grade readers can relate to. With every re-read, I saw more, felt more, and appreciated it more. Holes is a novel that forces us to examine how we view poor people of colour, especially when they’re behind bars. Though centered around a magical spell and a family curse, Holes gives us realism from beginning to end, in just how many Black bodies are victims of the system, and how many poor Black kids fall through the crack.
I give this one 5 stars.