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Holes | Study Guide

Louis Sachar

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Holes | Context


Magical Realism

Holes fits into a literary genre called magical realism. Magical realism takes place in a mostly realistic world, where a few magical elements exist. Settings in magical realism are usually described in great detail. When fantastical elements enter the story, the author typically describes them as if they are a natural part of the real world.

Holes takes place in a minutely described juvenile detention camp. Within this gritty setting, the omniscient narrator develops a story about a curse. In keeping with the traditions of magical realism, the narrator discusses the details of the curse with the same tone he uses for describing more realistic aspects of the setting, such as the intense heat and the threat of rattlesnake bites. In other words, the curse is made to seem as real as the other parts of the story.

By juxtaposing magical and realistic elements in unusual ways, magical realist texts often force the reader to question reality. In Holes, readers are pushed to question social structures surrounding race, justice, and power. Notably, all these structures are put into place by historic forces or social norms controlled by adults. In the process of freeing themselves from the curse, the teenage characters gain access to a source of power and justice that falls outside traditional social systems.

Characters in magical realism are usually developed in realistic ways. Although they do not always experience realistic situations, they do behave in ways we would expect people to behave if magic were a real and normal part of the world. Holes fits into this pattern by painting an emotionally realistic picture of what can happen when people are pushed to their limits, when they show loyalty to each other, and when they refuse to accept unfairness.

Latvian Immigration to the United States

Elya Yelnats emigrates from Latvia, a country in northeastern Europe, during the first wave of immigration to the United States in the mid to late 1800s. This initial immigrant group was small, and they often settled in areas such as Boston and Philadelphia, where they created churches and clubs. Another wave of Latvian immigration to the United States occurred in 1905 during a period of civil unrest in Eastern Europe.

Latvia, which borders the Baltic Sea, the Gulf of Riga, Estonia, Russia, and Belarus, was occupied by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) between 1940 and 1991, when Latvia declared its independence. The largest wave of Latvian immigration took place after World War II (1939–45), when Latvia suffered brutality and violence under both Soviet and Nazi occupation. Thousands of Latvians fled their country and lived in European refugee camps. By the early 1950s, many of them made their way to the United States.

Race and Social Relations

The old Texas plotline in particular ties in to America's history of slavery, racism, and social animosity in the decades following the outlaw of slavery. In the 1880s and living in profoundly segregated Texas, Sam is murdered for his romance with Miss Katherine. Texas, as was true of other southern states, passed laws against interracial couples. They could not marry, have sex, or live together. In 1967 the Supreme Court ruled in Loving v. Virginia that such laws violated the Constitution and were not legal. In keeping with the prevailing attitudes of the time period, the characters of historic Green Lake believe segregation is right, even when it leads to murder. These characters, sadly, are likely to view Sam's death as justice, not murder.

Historically, racism was most prevalent in societies that participated in the capture and enslavement of people from Africa. Latvia never had a tradition of racially based slavery. Because of this situation, racial attitudes in mid-1800s Latvia were somewhat less intense than in Texas. Madame Zeroni, an Egyptian woman, lives outside town in apparent isolation, and her friend Elya Yelnats doesn't seem to notice or question her outsider status. This lack of awareness is a hallmark of the privilege that exists among people of dominant racial groups.

In the modern plotline, the relationships between people of different races have changed, but historic inequalities have not been erased. In the contemporary United States, many people believe racism is wrong, but racial inequities persist in education levels, incarceration rates, pay rates, and other aspects of society. However, these problems are sometimes invisible to white people, who belong to the racial majority and thus are rarely personally affected by historic patterns of racism. In the novel, Stanley, who is white, initially believes that there are "no racial problems" among the boys of his tent. He probably means he is glad there is no fighting over race; nevertheless, his thoughts are naive. Four of the seven boys in his tent are African American or Hispanic, reflecting the fact that Americans of color are incarcerated at drastically higher rates than white Americans. Zero, an African American, has been so thoroughly overlooked by the system that he cannot even read.

Children and the Justice System

Stanley's 18-month sentence to Camp Green Lake for stealing a pair of shoes suggests that he falls victim to demands in the 1990s for a "get tough" approach to crime that allowed juveniles to be tried as adults. The $5,000 value of baseball player Clyde Livingston's shoes intended for auction at the homeless shelter likely makes Stanley's crime a felony in Texas, and in 1997 Texas required that a juvenile be at least 14 years of age, exactly Stanley's age, to be tried as an adult.

This situation allows the novel to challenge ideas of justice. The court and the detention camp, as systems of formal justice, fail Stanley in the present. The sheriff, also part of a system of formal justice, fails Sam and Katherine in the past. Regardless of these failures, Sachar suggests that there are worldly informal systems of justice that prevail when formal systems fail.

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