Stanley, the protagonist of the novel, is a friendless, self-conscious, overweight fifteen-year-old. He has constant bad luck that he blames on a curse that was brought upon the family by his great-great-grandfather. Stanley is wrongfully accused of stealing a pair of sneakers and is sent to a juvenile detention center that borders on the barbaric. While he is there he loses weight and develops physical strength by digging the required holes, five feet deep and five feet across, daily. He is given the nickname “Caveman” by the other inmates and for the first time in his life feels somewhat accepted by his peers. However, Stanley does not lose sight of the fact that the other boys have the potential for violence and does his best to stay on the good side of X-Ray, their leader.
At first Stanley bends to the cruelty around him and develops an emotional hardness, but then he befriends Zero, the least popular boy at Camp Green Lake, and finds an emotional strength that surpasses even his physical development. Soon he no longer concerns himself with the opinions of the other boys. He is even able to stand up to the authorities when he feels wronged. The power of his friendship with Zero helps Stanley discover his own courage, happiness and self-confidence. By the time he is released, Stanley has a new sense of himself and is no longer subject to the family curse.
Zero is a quiet, dark-skinned boy with a wide-mouthed smile. He was homeless before being sent to Camp Green Lake. The counselors and other inmates there feel that Zero is stupid and worthless and treat him cruelly. In reality, Zero is extremely smart, but uneducated. He and Stanley become friends when Stanley agrees to teach Zero how to read. As Zero describes the hard life he has had to his new friend, his amazing willpower and strength of character are revealed. (It is Zero who actually committed the theft for which Stanley was convicted, not because he is dishonest, but because he needed shoes.) The ridicule Zero bears at Camp Green Lake eventually becomes too much and Zero runs away. Stanley goes after him and they survive the desert together, cementing their friendship. The reader learns that Zero is the great-great-great-grandson of Madame Zeroni, the gypsy that cursed Stanley’s great-great-grandfather, and it is through the boys’ friendship that curse is undone.
The present day parts of the story are narrated like an adventure. The historic parts are narrated like a folk take. However when the parts come together, Holes turns into a puzzle, or mystery book. The reader is never quite given all of the details needed to solve the puzzle until the very end. Small pieces of Stanley’s family history and the history of Green Lake are revealed bit by bit. The reader must keep careful track of the details of Stanley’s trial, Elya Yelnats’ story and the powers of Sam’s onions. This pacing method allows the reader to make inferences but does not confirm positive connections. For example, when the reader begins to suspect a link between Zero and Madame Zeroni or a link between the Warden and Trout Walker, the real names of the characters are not yet revealed so the ties between past and present are not yet proven.
As the narrative shifts from present to distant past, back to present, then to recent past, etc. a linear story line cannot be maintained. Current events are described in chronological order, but do not necessarily correspond to the historic events described at the same time. Therefore, the tempo of the plot movement is slower for the first half of the novel. Then, as the pieces of history start to fall into place and the reader can see the relationship between past and present more clearly, the tempo speeds up. It is at these points that the narration changes to address the reader directly with instructions such as, “You make the decision: Whom did God punish?” and, “You will have to fill in the holes yourself.”
The irony and dark humor of the stories within the story finally come together making the point that although fate seemed always to be against Stanley, his convoluted history proves otherwise.