The scene of the ominous Camp Green Lake is set. It is a desert, not a lake at all. There is no shade except over the Warden’s hammock. “The Warden owns the shade.” There are rattlesnakes and scorpions that occupy holes dugs by the campers. But most disturbing are the deadly yellow-spotted lizards. If one bites you, “There is nothing anyone can do to you anymore.”
Notes: “There is no lake at Camp Green Lake.” The opening sentence of the story immediately sets a dark mood, and then the hazards of nature are described. With this first irony of the novel, the reader senses that Camp Green Lake is indeed a dismal place. In two short pages the anxiety builds to hopelessness and the reader wonders why anyone would go to Camp Green Lake.
The reason “campers” go to Camp Green Lake is made clear. It is a detention center for boys. As punishment each boy must dig a hole every day in the desert heat. Supposedly their labor will turn a “bad boy” into a “good boy.” Stanley Yelnats, a fifteen-year-old boy from a poor family, chose Camp Green Lake over going to jail. He thought it would be like a summer camp, something he had never before had the opportunity to experience.
Notes: The protagonist, Stanley Yelnats, is introduced in this brief (9 sentences) chapter and the reader is let in on the second bit of irony: Camp Green Lake is not a camp. Though concise, this chapter introduces the pacing method the author uses throughout the novel. He gives the reader partial answers or small hints each step of the way, but at the same time plants new questions in the reader’s mind.
Stanley rides the unairconditioned bus to Camp Green Lake handcuffed to the armrest. The bus driver and a guard with a rifle are the only other people on the bus. Stanley tries to pretend that he is going to Camp Fun and Games, a place he had imagined while playing with his stuffed animals when he was younger.
At home Stanley had been friendless and ridiculed, even by his teachers who unwittingly could embarrass him about his weight - like the time when Mrs. Bell’s lesson on ratios found Stanley three times heavier than another boy.
Stanley is a good kid and is actually innocent of the crime for which he is being sent to Camp Green Lake. As is the joke in his family, Stanley blames his misfortune on his no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather. His great -great-grandfather had reportedly stolen a pig from a one-legged gypsy and brought a curse down upon the family forever.
As Stanley remembers his family, he remembers a song
his father had sung to him:
“If only, if only,” the woodpecker sighs,
“The bark on the tree was just a little bit softer.”
While the wolf waits below, hungry and lonely,
He cries to the moo-oo-oon,
“If only, if only.”
Stanley’s father was Stanley Yelnats III,
making the Stanley in the novel Stanley Yelnats IV. The family liked the palindromic
effect of naming their only sons Stanley. Stanley’s father was an unsuccessful
inventor, looking for a use for old sneakers. Stanley’s great-grandfather, Stanley
Yelnats I, made money in the stock market, but was robbed of everything and left
stranded in the desert by the outlaw Kissin’ Kate Barlow. Unfortunately all of
the Stanleys to date had bad luck, though they always remained hopeful.
Upon arriving at Camp Green Lake, Stanley notes, “hardly anything was green.”
Notes: Here we learn that Stanley is not popular, was wrongfully convicted, and seems to be following the pattern of bad luck set by the Stanley Yelnatses before him. Three stories within the main story are introduced, each seeming to echo the failure and wishful thinking of Stanley’s father’s song. Just enough information is given for the reader to wonder how Stanley’s family history will play into Stanley’s current predicament. At the chapter’s end, the third and last irony of the misnomer, “Camp Green Lake” is observed through Stanley’s eyes.