Holes | Raising Victor Vargas

Holes | Raising Victor Vargas

Once in a great while, the Newbery Medal actually goes to the best children’s book of the year rather than a pale compromise (that is, the third choice of everyone on the selection committee). When the 1999 award went to Holes by Louis Sachar, it honored something that is rare in juvenile literature and very common in adult fiction: narrative complexity grounded in a moral vision.

Here is a story that unfolds in four time zones. First, we meet a poor boy, with the palindromic name Stanley Yelnats, who has been unjustly sentenced to a strange reform school. Camp Green Lake is a "dry, flat wasteland" in Texas, where each young convict must dig one hole a day, five feet deep and five feet wide, before retiring to a squalid bunkhouse with smelly cots and a broken TV. It’s Sisyphus for kids. Although the phony camp psychologist describes their work as character building, the inmates know they’re really being shown that life is absurd. What’s worse, they’re all ready to agree since all previous experience confirms it. The flashbacks (time zone 2), portraying the hero’s feckless family and its inability to help him, make it clear that Stanley, fat and fatalistic, is trudging toward despair.

But then time zones 3 and 4 insist on a "divinity that shapes our ends." We read (time zone 3) of how the thoughtlessness of an ancestor provoked a curse on the Yelnats clan. Green Lake itself (time zone 4) suffers from a...

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About the Author

Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.