The novel takes place at a boys’ juvenile detention center situated
in the dried up bed of a fictional lake in Texas. Most of the story is set in
contemporary time, around the end of the 1990s. There are flashbacks to the town
of Green Lake, which existed one hundred ten years earlier before the lake dried
up. (Note: There is an actual Green Lake, one of the largest lakes in Texas, southwest
of Port Lavaca, but the real town of Green Lake was all but abandoned after the
Civil War.) There are also flashbacks to a village in Latvia in the mid-1800s.
Mr. Sir - He is the mean, antagonistic counselor at Camp Green Lake. He is cruel and sarcastic, always reminding the boys that they are not at a “Girl Scout Camp.”
Mr. Pendanski - He seems the nicer of the counselors at first, but he turns out to be mean spirited. He regularly taunts and berates Zero, and jokes that the holes could be graves for Stanley and Zero.
The Warden - She is the embodiment of cruel authority. She runs Camp Green Lake with rewards and threats, showing no concern for the suffering of others. She is the granddaughter of Charles and Linda Walker, and though she says the boys are digging to “build character”, they are really digging for the treasure that her ancestors never found.
X-Ray, Squid, Magnet, Armpit, Zigzag - These are the other boys at the camp. They have established an arbitrary hierarchy for the boys in Group D, with X-Ray at the top, and Zero at the bottom. Like the Warden, they use rewards and threats as their system of control.
Elya Yelnats - He is Stanley’s “no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather”. The story flashes back to his village in Latvia where, at the age of fifteen, Elya accidentally breaks a promise to the gypsy, Madame Zeroni. This brings bad luck to the Yelnats family for generations to come.
Madame Zeroni - She is the one-footed gypsy who gave Elya Yelnats a pig with which to win the hand of his love. When Elya broke his promise to carry her up the mountain to drink where the “water runs uphill”, Madame Zeroni cursed the Yelnats family. The curse is broken because of the friendship between Stanley and Madame Zeroni’s descendant, Hector Zeroni (Zero).
Katherine Barlow - She was the schoolteacher in the town of Green Lake one hundred ten years ago. She was a kind woman, famous for her spiced peaches. She kissed Sam, a black man, causing the townspeople to burn down the school and murder her love. She then became the outlaw, Kissin’ Kate Barlow, who robbed Stanley’s great-grandfather. Her preserved peaches lasted until Zero found them under the remains of Sam’s boat.
Sam, the onion man - He grew and sold onions and medicines made from onions in the town of Green Lake. He repaired the schoolhouse for Katherine, who fell in love with this kind, strong man. However, since he was black, it was against the law for him to be with Katherine. When they kissed it caused a riot in the town and he was murdered. His onions were still growing one hundred ten years later on the far side of the lake, where Stanley and Zero would find them.
Charles “Trout” Walker - He was an arrogant, stupid man in Green Lake who thought he could have anything because of his money. He could not have Katherine Barlow and this angered him. He led the riot into the schoolhouse and murdered Sam.
Stanley Yelnats I - He was Elya Yelnats’ son, Stanley’s great-grandfather. After being robbed in the desert by Kissin’ Kate Barlow, he climbed “God’s thumb” and survived there until his rescue.