Book of the week

7th January 2000 at 00:00
HOLES. By Louis Sachar. Bloomsbury Children's Books pound;10.99

Copies of Holes have been circulating among those in the know for some time. My American edition was handed over by a New York contact, a children's librarian, in a Whitechapel Indian restaurant in autumn 1998. I met her price - one second-hand copy of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, then unpublished in the US - and I paid for her curry. It was a good deal. Of course I could have used an Internet bookshop, but where's the thrill in that?

Louis Sachar's novel about a boy sent in error to a dodgy detention centre in a Texas desert wasteland, where the inmates are forced to dig holes of standard size through the heat of the day, caused a stir at the Bologna Children's Book Fair last spring, when Bloomsbury Children's Books (Harry Potter's publisher) bought the UK rights. Then Holes won the Newbery Medal, the top US children's book award (the equivalent of the Carnegie Medal here) and the word-of-mouth excitement grew.

This is a book that will accumulate adult as well as child readers and should be read by, in particular, adults who work with young people or in any kind of institution, including schools. Critics in the US have picked up on the humour in Holes (and there is plenty of gallows humour in the details of Stanley Yelnats's day-to-day survival in a digging gang with its own rituals and pecking order) but its fictional value also lies in its wider treatment of crime and punishment through generations and in the intriguing, immaculately structured story that unfolds and refolds like an origami sculpture.

It's not surprising that the author, currently working on a Holes screenplay in his home in Austin, Texas, took up bridge while he was writing the novel. "I was attracted by the logic and by the way that everything comes out in the end. I play for a couple of hours in the afternoons after writing in the mornings and it's a different way of thinking," he says.

In Holes, as in bridge, what goes around comes around. Camp Green Lake, where there is no camp and no lake, is on the site of a formerly thriving town that lost its lake and its livelihood when it condemned a romance between a white woman, Kate the schoolteacher, and a black man, Sam the onion seller. Meanwhile, in Europe, Stanley's ancestor attracted a gipsy's curse when he forgot his side of a bargain in his haste to ail for the New World. Nothing is wasted in Sachar's story: even Kate's spiced peaches and Sam's green onions prove to be crucial to the plot.

Several generations later, Stanley inherits the family bad luck and is sent to Camp Green Lake for a crime he didn't commit. In fact, bad luck is only part of the picture - like the other boys digging holes in the dried-up lake bed, looking for some ill-defined treasure for the witchy Warden, Stanley's there because he's at the bottom of the heap and can't play the system. ("Stanley Yelnats was given a choice. The judge said, 'You may go to jail, or you may go to Camp Green Lake.' Stanley was from a poor family. He had never been to camp before.") All labour camp literature explains the institution's internal currency: in the parched Camp Green Lake, power rests with control of the water supply, but knowledge is power too. Stanley and his friend Hector take their first steps towards escape when Stanley teaches Hector to read.

Names are also important: Stanley has a palindromic name for a reason. The inmates all have camp names: Stanley's is Caveman because he's a big boy, which is a problem when he arrives but useful later; Hector's is Zero, to reflect the value that society places on him and that, for a while, he places on himself. At one point the camp authorities attempt to make him disappear by wiping his files. Zero's crime is more significant than the bare facts of his case reveal: everything in this tale changes once the soil has been turned over.

There is nothing worthy about Holes, although there are many important messages in it. Outlaws, lost parents, intrepid immigrants, deadly reptiles, hostile elements (Sachar writes about extreme heat in a way that makes you understand his affection for damp winters in San Francisco, where he used to live) and the triumph of the will to survive make it a ripping yarn.

For Sachar, the Newbery medal represents a breakthrough after 20 years writing well received children's fiction (notably the Wayside School and Martin Redpath series) which has never broken out of a US schools and libraries readership. One American reviewer refers to his work having suffered "benign neglect" in the past.

"When I go to play bridge now, people have heard of the book," he says. "I've spent a long time with the door shut, and Holes has made me meet the outside world."

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