Louis Sachar makes this fantasy story seem realistic by the way he intertwines the elements of fantasy or supernatural, with the everyday things that are going on. The story opens with a description of Camp Green Lake, a very brief glimpse in to why anyone would go to a lake where there is no lake and moves to Stanley's arrival at the camp. The more or less mundane discussion of Stanley's problems in school, his problems with the bully, his arrest and conviction of a crime he didn't commit, and the constant failure of his father's experimenting create an atmosphere of a gritty realism. Then, in the midst of this, Stanley begins thinking about his, "no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-great-grandfather." It is, a family joke. "Whenever something went wrong, they always blamed Stanley's no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-great-grandfather.
Then the realism starts being bent. Stanley meets Mr. Sir. He gets his "camp clothes." He learns about the four-minute cold showers. The story elements are realistic but exaggerated, bent and finally, the most implausible "realism" of all, digging holes: Precise holes. Five, by five, by five foot holes, one every day. Stanley meets his "counselor," the boys he will be living with and is digging his first hole when the supernatural is introduced into the story by way of the explanation of the "curse."
Stanley's great-great-great-grandfather was named Elya Yelnats. He was born in Latvia. When He was fifteen years old he fell in love with Myra Menke. (He didn't know he was Stanley's great-great grandfather.) Myra Menke was fourteen. She would turn fifteen in two months, at which time her father had decided she should be married.
By using the facts that Elya was born in a far away, mysterious-sounding country, and that the girl's father makes the decision as to when she will marry, Sachar begins moving the story truly into fantasy. The intent is to begin sounding like a fairy tale. The explanation of how the "curse" comes about continues. There is a brief description of the rival for Myra's hand and the offers that are made. Igor Barkov is old, fat and, one would guess, rich by the standards of the area. He can offer a fat pig. Elya has a..."heart full of love." In desperation, Elya seeks the advice and counsel of an old woman, a fortune teller. The story moves more strongly towards fantasy. Madam Zeroni is Egyptian, she is dark-skinned, and "when she looked at you...you felt that she was looking right through you." She is also described as being a cripple.
Elya, what's wrong?" she asked, even before he told her he was upset. She was sitting in a homemade wheelchair. She had no left foot. Her leg stopped at the ankle.
I'm in love with Myra Menke," Elya confessed. "But Igor Barkov has offered to trade his fattest pig for her. I can't compete with that."
Madam Zeroni tells Elya it is a good thing that Igor can make the better offer. She tells him that Myra, though beautiful, is useless, and dumb. "Myra's head is empty as a flower pot." she tells him. Of course, as a fifteen-year-old boy, all Elya can see is her beauty. Madam Zeroni feels sorry for Elya so she will help him any way. She gives him a piglet which is the runt of the litter and tells him what he must do. As with any magic formula, he must follow the instruction exactly including, once he has followed all the instructions for the pig, he must also perform the same ritual with her. In his desire to make the best impression, Elya does not follow the instructions to the letter and his pig winds the exact same weight as Igor's. This situation creates the scenes where Elya is shown very clearly that Myra has no real feelings for him. In his disappointment, he goes to take ship for America. After the ship has sailed, he remembers he has broken his promise to Madam Zeroni. He is upset about breaking his promise but since he doesn't believe in curses, he wasn't afraid.
Sachar creates the reality of the curse by having the curse live on in the family in the present time of the book as well as in the past time. Sachar makes the curse look real because the men in the line of Yelnats were always having bad luck. When Elya moved to America he always seemed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Elya had a son named Stanley, Stanly I. When Stanley was older, on his way out west with his life's savings, he was robbed and left stranded in the desert by the outlaw Kissin' Kate Barlow. Kate Barlow took the chest of jewels and stock certificates that Stanley was riding with and buried it somewhere in the tried up lake. When he was finally found, he was delirious. So when he said, "I found refuge on god's thumb," nobody understood or believed him.
Stanley II, our Staley's father, was trying to invent a way to get rid of bad foot odor curse put on the males he was having troubles inviting a good odor extinguisher. His landlord was threatening to kick him out because of the smell that came from the sneakers. On the way home from school Stanley was in the wrong place at the wrong time and a pair of shoes that flew down from the overpass hit him in the head. The shoes that hit Stanley had belonged to the famous Clyde Livingston who had donated them to an orphanage so Stanley was called a thief and wound up at Camp Green Lake. Those parts of the novel show how Sachar had formed the fantasy curse into reality by having it live on through the present time of the Yelnats.
The fantasy is further developed in the series of "strange coincidences" that are also part of the story. Camp Green Lake just happens to be where Stanly I was robbed.
The warden is a descendent of one of the people who killed "Kissin' Kate. Zero, unknown to anyone, including him, is a descendent of madam Zeroni and he and Stanley wind up at the same place at the same time. Without realizing it, Stanley's care of and friendship with Zero will ultimately break the curse and create the fullness of the fantasy.
Adolescents will appreciate or understand this story on many levels. They will empathize with Stanley's problems. The will know how it feels to feel out of place. They will understand about bullies and being laughed at. They will understand the total miscarriage of justice that happens to Stanley. They will understand that Camp Green Lake is a fraud. They will see the lie in the idea that digging holes, in the hot Texas sun, in a dry lakebed, will build character. They may identify with the sense that nobody really cares about what happens to kids, or maybe anyone -- unless there is money to be made. They will cheer, as do the boys of the camp, when Stanley starts fighting back. They will appreciate the love story that happens for Elya.
In America, Stanley learned to speak English. He fell in love with a woman named Sarah Miller. She could push a plow, milk a goat, and most important, think for herself. She and Elya often stayed up half the night talking and laughing together.
Their life together was not easy. Elya worked hard, but bad luck seemed to follow him every where. He always seemed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
As the story continues, young people will get the sense that maybe Elya really does begin to believe in the curse. He is always looking for Madam Zeroni's son. He contemplates carrying him up a mountain and singing the pig lullaby to him. When bad luck continues to follow him he "confesses" what he did to his wife. In a way, she is the key to breaking the curse, and the young reader will recognize that. Young people are much better tuned in than they are often given credit for. Along with the surface story, there are a lot of other things going on and it is those elements that will appeal to most young, and maybe not so young readers.
Is this the new fairy tale? Yes. Although fairy tales, as they have existed for years, will continue to be popular in themselves, and as the basis for new stories, the fairy tale is also changing to fit into our modern world. Holes is not the only currently popular story to combine the fantastic with the everyday world to create modern fairy stories.
The fantasy writer Mercedes Lackey has a series of books, set in the present, in which the main characters are or interact with elves. In her Bedlam's Bard trilogy, her protagonist is a flautist who meets up with elves. The elves are first…