By Louis Sachar
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
233 pp., $16
A group of distinguished writers gave Louis Sachar the National Book Award for young-adult fiction, but he was more interested in the response of one 11-year-old critic.
A model of humility at the awards ceremony in New York City last month, Sachar said he and his daughter had read all the other finalists for the prestigious award.
"Every time she'd finish one, I'd ask her, 'How was it?' and she'd say, 'Bad news, Dad: I loved it.' "
He needn't have worried. "Holes" fills a worrisome gap on the bookshelf for middle school readers. Like a gawky teenager, this novel is full of adolescent anxiety and shy wit on the cusp of adulthood.
Sachar descends into terrors we wish young people didn't have to face, but ultimately he floods this muted story with the kind of buoyant hope that's salvation at any age.
The story opens when overweight, friendless Stanley Yelnats arrives with an armed guard at Camp Green Lake, Texas. He and his hapless family try "to pretend he's just going away to camp for a while, just like rich kids do," but this is no camp, nothing is green, and the lake has been bone dry for a hundred years.
This corrections facility for boys is harsh, though simpler to negotiate than the daily humiliations of his old middle school. Under the supervision of a couple of cruel taskmasters, Stanley and his fellow delinquents are forced to rise early each day and dig enormous holes in the barren desert earth - to build character.
"You're not in the Girl Scouts anymore," Mr. Sir barks at the parched boys every day.
They come from a variety of backgrounds and races, but all are eventually burnt the same reddish brown. Wary tolerance slowly leads to tenuous friendship among the boys, and Stanley finds a kind of acceptance and even appreciation he never experienced back at school.
Eventually, a thug named Zero asks him to teach him how to read, but that modest plan for self-improvement runs afoul of their outrageous warden, who paints her fingernails with rattlesnake venom.
Throughout Stanley's trials, the story jumps into the wild west past of Camp Green Lake, when a racially motivated murder drove a sweet school teacher to bank robbery and called down a draught that's lasted a hundred years.
Despite these bizarre details, Sachar is actually a master of restraint. He knows how to let acts of kindness seep into this bleak landscape without a drop of sentimentality. Shocking violence flashes across the page periodically, but he creates just as much terror in long passages of quiet waiting. And perhaps no author has ever had the nerve - or skill - to stretch out a frozen moment so long as his tense conclusion under the eye of poison lizards.
The blistering desert setting of this story is wetted with just the right dose of mystery, and by the end, past and present are linked in ways Stanley (and we) never could have imagined.
* Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail to email@example.com