Holes: Folklore Redux
Elizabeth G. Mascia
Folk literature is an unfailingly rich source of reading pleasure and literary study in the middle school class room. In addition to reading individual legends, folk tales, myth, and fairy tales, teachers and students have discovered the value and satisfaction of comparing text variants from several cultures. Middle schoolers invariably relish "fractured" fairy tales and parodies of the classic tales. Moreover, young adult readers have proved to be an appreciative audience for contemporary short stories and novels that recast traditional folk stories. Donna Jo Napoli has retold the traditional tale of the Frog Prince in the novel The Prince of the Pond: Otherwise Known as De Fawg Pin and its sequel, Jimmy, the Pickpocket of the Palace. Similarly, she has recast the story of Rapunzel as a novel in Zel. Robin McKinley's novels Beauty and Rose Daughter are both retellings of the Beauty and the Beast tale. Gail Carson Levine's novel Ella Enchanted is based on the Cinderella story. Her The Fairy's Mistake humorously retells "Diamonds and Toads." Jane Yolen's Briar Rose, based on the Sleeping Beauty story, and Patricia Wrede's Snow White and Rose Red, based on the tale of the same name, are both novels in Terri Windling's Fairy Tale Series in which authors are asked to cast classic fairy tales as novels. Priscilla Galloway has revisited the tales collected by the Brothers Grimm in her short story collection Truly Grim Tales.
A careful reading of the recent, award-winning Holes, by Louis Sachar, reveals that it can be added to the list of contemporary texts grounded in folklore and, as such, stands as yet another manifestation of folklore's enduring allure for modern writers and readers. In fact, it can be argued that it is a debt to folk literature that allows readers to willingly accept and delight in a plot so improbable that it would otherwise strain their capacity to suspend disbelief as they read Holes.
A sketch of the plot hardly leads a reader to expect folklore from this Newbery and National Book Award recipient. Rather, one might anticipate a dose of harsh realism. A young boy, unjustly accused of a crime, must serve a term at a detention camp for juvenile offenders. The camp, incongruously named Green Lake, is situated in the Texas desert, and, each day, in merciless heat, each inmate must dig a hole, five feet deep and five feet wide. Neither the sadistic warden nor the guards ever explain why the holes must be dug. Everyone does acknowledge that hopes of escape across the unforgiving desert are futile. This grim place and its cruel, Sisyphean routine do not, however, get the better of the endearing hero of the novel, Stanley Yelnats, or his equally sympathetic sidekick, Hector "Zero" Zeroni. With much struggle, they defeat their jailers.
These events certainly may sound like the fodder of realistic fiction, but by the end of Holes, a reader must make a disconcerting admission: The novel involves events that are too improbable and coincidences that are too farfetched for it to succeed as realistic fiction. To wit: Stanley, bemoaning the bad luck that his "no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-greatgreat- grandfather" (p. 7) has visited upon him, is incarcerated for stealing a pair of sneakers belonging to a superstar athlete when, in fact, Zero, whom he happens upon and befriends at godforsaken Green Lake, admits to being the real thief. Camp Green Lake becomes the final resting place of the New World fortune that Stanley's great-great grandfather won, then lost, to Madame Zeroni's curse. The curse has allegedly bedeviled the Yelnats clan right down to poor, hole-digging Stanley. Since Elya's and Madame Zeroni's descendants have now met on the Texas moonscape that is Camp Green Lake, it is Stanley Yelnats IV who fulfills Elya's promise. But the promise is to a latter-day Zeroni, and thus breaks the generations-old curse. And there are many more such chance encounters and coincidences that just do not happen in "real life" but that do comprise this story.
So it is that the reflective reader begins to suspect that, rather than being the realistic fiction it seemed to be at first glance, Holes is quite otherwise. It is, in fact, a huge yarn that weaves together well-known elements from traditional folk literature, then stretches them across a contemporary landscape. Readily recognizable are myriad motifs from Old World fairy tales and elements of New World legends and tall tales. But, lest readers lose sight of the immediacy of the story's events, there are sufficient amounts of grim reality- racism, poverty, the juvenile justice system as well as the forbidding setting-to ground the story in the here-and-now. Nevertheless, once the folkloric has been summoned up within the novel's early chapters, the reader comfortingly senses that no matter how dicey things may at times become for Stanley, his story will not succumb to the true-to-life harshness of a Robert Cormier or Cynthia Voigt narrative. Rather, there will be adequate magic to pluck the hero from the villain's maw and conjure a happily-ever-after ending in which, as in traditional folk literature, moral order is restored. Moreover, while all this is happening, Sachar displays his trademark humor (Sideways Stories from Wayside School), regularly parodying the folklore he invokes to tell his story. He thereby alerts his reader that Stanley's travails should not be taken too seriously; tragedy cannot befall the hero while the reader is chuckling. Folklore, and the parody of it, therefore, cushions Stanley's story and convincingly distances it from stark realism. In the end, one realizes that in Holes, Louis Sachar has experimented with the conventional novel form; he has blended fairy tale, legend, tall tale, and realistic narrative into a story that, while defying easy genre classification, grabs hold of its readers and steers them along to an satisfying conclusion.
The evidence for Holes as folklore abounds whether one has a scholarly familiarity with Stith Thompson's Motif -Index of Folk Literature or merely comes to the story with a typical middle school student's Grimm-Andersen-Disney acquaintance with folk literature. If one did turn to Stith Thompson's Index, one would find the characters and events of Holes generously represented among compiled motifs; for example, unpromising hero or heroine (L100-L199); suitor tests (H310-H359); tasks imposed (H900); witch assigns tasks (H935); task performed with help of old woman (H971.1); task of carrying ever-increasing burden up mountain (H1114.2); task contrary to laws of nature (H1020); bride offered as prize (H336); curses (M400-499); old woman helper (N825.3); old woman's curse (M411.5); curse: failure in all undertakings (M441); magic powers from swallowing magic drink (D1735.3); magic results from bathing (D1788); magic healing water (D1500.1.18); magic healing river (D1500.1.18.6); magic healing drink (D1500.1.11); magic object gives invulnerability (D1344); magic invulnerability (D1840).
Several pieces of Sachar's story are fairy tale-like in nature, but, most notably, is the account of Stanley's great-great grandfather's quest for the hand of a young woman he thinks he loves. Like so many fairy-tale suitors, Elya Yelnats is an underdog - young and poor, but passionate and pure of heart. Like his many fairy-tale counterparts, he enters a competition to prove his worth to his beloved and her father. Alas, this adventure, (which involves a pig, a promise, the aforementioned Madame Zeroni, a task imposed, a magic lullaby, and an enchanted stream where the water runs uphill) ends hastily with a task unfinished, a promise unfulfilled, and a curse heaped on Elya's head and the heads of his descendants. Students will quickly recognize in this bit of Yelnats family history the unworthy suitor, the competition, the task, the fairy godmother-helper, the magic, and the curse that are familiar elements in fairy tales with which they have been acquainted since childhood such as "The Frog Prince," "Cinderella," "The Golden Goose," "Sleeping Beauty," and "The Brave Little Tailor."
Elements that readers will readily associate with fairy tales continue to appear throughout the story, often at critical junctures. Stanley, like Elya before him, proves to be the fairytale hero who is unfailingly pure of heart despite his humble appearance and underdog history. Recognizable as magic, albeit homely magic, is the onion juice that works as a potion to protect Stanley and Zero from the fatally poisonous sting of the dreaded yellow-spotted lizard, this tale's incarnation of a deadly dragon. In fact, a certain magic has seemed attached to Stanley from the earliest pages of Holes. The careful reader notes a peculiar happenstance of his lineage: "Stanley was an only child, as was every other Stanley Yelnats before him" (p. 9). As in "Rumpelstiltskin," the recognition of a name climaxes the story, this time it being the palindrome Stanley Yelnats. At this point, as in so many fairytales, the true heir is revealed, and Stanley, once the Ugly Duckling but now transformed by his physically rigorous tenure at Camp Green Lake, and with his true mettle finally apparent, redeems his family from its Old World curse and restores its fortune.
While Elya Yelnats' brush with love puts an Old World fairy tale, albeit one gone awry, at the heart of Holes, the completion of his tale awaits in the New World, specifically the American West, not a place of fairy tales but of legends and tall tales. Accordingly, Sachar moves his story forward by thrusting Elya's offspring into the path of the legendary Kissin' Kate Barlow, wronged schoolmarm turned vengeful outlaw. The incident that changes Kate's life is viciously racist: Because Kate has fallen in love with Sam, a Black man, the sheriff burns down her schoolhouse and Trout, a feckless, spurned suitor, murders her beloved. Kate kills the sheriff and turns to a life of crime, robbing the first Stanley Yelnats, Elya's son, as he travels West after striking it rich in New York's stock market. She buries Stanley's fortune at what will become Camp Green Lake. Twenty years later, Kate dies as an impoverished Trout vainly attempts to make her reveal the whereabouts of Stanley's trove. Trout's granddaughter, Green Lake's sadistic warden, is determined to find those riches, and her search for them drives the plot in which the fourth Stanley Yelnats becomes enmeshed.
Kissin' Kate Barlow will easily remind readers of larger-thanlife Old West bandits such as Jesse James and Belle Starr. For two decades she was "one of the most feared outlaws in all the West" (p. 115). Her signature gesture was to apply a fresh coat of red lipstick and then kiss the men she had killed. When her end came, she mocked the murderous Trout and died laughing. Kate's story is tinged with the hyperbole of the tall-tale: her spiced peaches, "food for the angels," (p. 102) were so delicious that no one else in the town even tried to make them; from the day Kate's beloved Sam was murdered, not a drop of rain fell on Green Lake, turning the thriving community into a desert ghost town.
Old World and New World tales having intersected when Kissin' Kate relieved Stanley I of his newfound wealth, they are set on a trajectory to their resolutions when thirteen- yearold Stanley Yelnats arrives at Camp Green Lake and starts digging Holes. The descendants of the principals from Elya and Kate's stories meet and play key roles in the unfolding plot until Stanley Yelnats IV has not only fulfilled his greatgreat- grandfather's promise to Madame Zeroni, but also recovered his great-grandfather's stolen fortune. On the day that happens, the first drop of rain in one hundred ten years falls on Green Lake; good triumphs over evil and, in this one instance, at least, good luck befalls life's lowly. In presentday Texas, the Old World fairy-tale at last finds its happilyever- after ending.
The last lines of Holes seem emblematic of the entire outlandish, yet satisfying, tale. The story ends with Zero's mother singing the lullaby Madame Zeroni taught Elya Yelnats long ago in Latvia, crooned first to a pig and then to her. Sung in the Yelnats and Zeroni families across five generations, the song suffered variations, but constant remained the words "If only, if only." Repeated throughout Holes, the words seem to punctuate the story for good reason, for in it, Louis Sachar has made the highly improbable happen to fulfill good people's longings. He has employed literary forms in which magic and the outrageous are expected so that unlikely events might happen and enjoy reader acceptance. While in real life "if only, if only" most usually remains but a futile wish, in fairy tales, legends, and tall tales, "if only, if only" can become reality. When this happens in Holes, young readers can take heart and consider that, like Stanley and Zero, they too might prevail over imposing adversaries and life's vicissitudes.
Louis Sachar was able to tell his unlikely story because he ingeniously wove the folkloric into the lives of two down-ontheir- luck kids. He let folklore secure his story against a realism that often limits and even destroys heroes. The result: a rich tale of loyalty and goodness triumphing over injustice; a finely crafted novel that has found an appreciative adolescent audience and critical acclaim; and yet another testament to folk literature's continuing magic for contemporary writers and readers.
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Elizabeth G. Mascia teaches 8th grade language arts and is chairperson of the language arts department at Jamesville DeWitt Middle School, Jamesville, New York.
Reference Citation: Mascia, Elizabeth G. (2001) "Holes: Folklore Redux." The ALAN Review, Volume 28, Number 2, p. 51.