Nostalgic Reads: Uncomfortable Realism Fills in the Holes
Holes by Louis Sachar is another book that made quite an impression on me when I was younger and it’s stuck with me long after I finished reading it. Can it live up to my memories of it?
*Spoiler Alert* While I don’t spoil any major plot points, I do address some specific scenes so, heads up!
As I dug in, I noticed the style of writing was more simplistic than I remembered. Since Sachar is most known for his Sideways Stories from Wayside School series, it makes sense that Holes would be aimed for a middle-grade crowd—that’s exactly what I was when I read it the first time.
Stanley comes across as really naive, and much younger than the 14-year-old the Wikipedia page claims he is. I found myself getting frustrated with him. The curse of his no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather is a device used to excuse all the terrible things that get dumped on Stanley and his family. It seems Sachar created a character so that other kids in similar positions to Stanley could relate to the bad luck, bullying, and poverty, wishing they too had an ancestor they could blame.
The unspoken social dynamics among the boys was very interesting. This book came out in the late ‘90s, long before toxic masculinity was even part of our language to define it. Seeing Stanley assess that there was a pecking order at the detention camp he was sent to, and how his status changed over the course of the story was eye-opening. Even if Stanley isn’t the brightest crayon in the box, as a bullied kid, he knows where his place is among others.
But I had forgotten just how mean the boys were in his group. Earlier on, one of them hides that he was crying at night while the others slept and gets hostile with Stanley for bringing it up. Our protagonist is kind and empathetic to the boy, but the other kid knows that in his social climate, emotions are a weakness and make you a target. It’s unfortunately a reality that is still perpetuated.
There is so much that goes unsaid in this book, and a younger reader will still enjoy the content at face value. It’s the person that has more life experience to read between-the-lines that realizes how sad a picture Holes paints for them. These kids are living in poverty, punished for being poor and uneducated, they have parents that abandon them because of bad circumstances, there is illegal child labor, neglect, bullying, racism, and abuse.
And I think that’s why so many younger readers get a lot out of this book, because even if they haven’t experienced these terrible things overtly, they know someone who has. It’s obvious that Stanley is an underdog, but astute readers will notice that all of the boys are underdogs in their own story. We relate to Stanley and Hector, we’re sad for Kate Barlow and Sam, and we want bad things to happen to the Warden and her awful camp counselors.
It’s unfair to try to talk about nostalgia with this book. As a child reading it, you’re focused on the curse, the search for treasure, and trying to survive. As an adult reading it, it’s just—a different book. There are a lot of complex issues that Holes broaches, both on and under the surface. Adding 20 years of life experience to this re-read created a can of worms I wasn’t anticipating. Assessing the characters and the issues they face was more obvious this time and honestly, heartbreaking.
Some things happen in this book that are not nice and are disturbing to read when they happen. The fact that Holes is more rooted in reality makes these moments harder to stomach. I think the best thing to do is to talk about them when the scenes happen. Why? Because people matter and we need to acknowledge the wrongs so that they don’t repeat themselves in another form in the future.
Holes should be required reading for everyone. This book creates an opportunity to discuss these tough topics with younger readers, to give their critical thinking skills a chance to assess what they see in the content and find a way to make sense of it in real life. Having active conversations about what happens would be so valuable for the middle-grade group the book is aimed for.
As for adults, we need to read it to remember how rough it is to be a child or a teenager. Our minds hide the bad things from us and we end up romanticizing what happened. Holes is a doorway to the past for every adult and a way for us to recognize those feelings in the kids around us as real and valid. Because at some point, all of us have been or known a Stanley or a Hector. Let us remember and do better.