book review: Holes; Curses and Hope

Holes; by Louis Sachar

Curses and Hope

Sachar, Louis. Holes. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998. Print.

            This story is about Stanley Yelnats (Yelnats is Stanley in reverse) and his family curse. Stanley is spending time at a youth rehabilitation camp where he and his newly acquired comrades come to terms with a very harsh life but also find incredible sweetness in life when curses are broken. Stanley claims to be innocent of his crime and was just in the wrong place at the wrong time because of an old curse on his family, “It was all because of his no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather!” (7). He explains this as the family joke, “he had a great-great-grandfather who had stolen a pig from a one-legged Gypsy, and she put a curse on him and all his descendants” (8). This story is more deeply about a universal curse upon all of humanity, viewing all of humanity as wasting away, vainly digging holes; “When you spend your whole life living in a hole, the only way you can go is up” (160). But the story is also about hope.

            Some of us might personally identify with the characters of this story as; young and in need of maturity, social misfits, and with a background of family curses. This becomes most obvious in the story of Stanley’s friend Zero. The Gypsy’s name was Madam Zeroni, coincidentally the family name of Zero. The name Zero implies someone who has been discarded by society as worthless, “No one cares about Hector Zeroni” (144). We are told the story of his childhood and desperate plight of his mother and how he eventually is abandoned and becomes homeless. This is Zero’s curse but all of the characters have their own version of a curse.

            There is a strong sub-theme of showing racism as evil, or as a curse upon society. Stanley’s companions at camp are not initially identified by their race. They are first described by their character, which is really profound considering our culture’s inclination to describe people first by the category of color. In chapters 25 and 26 we are told the story of the white school teacher Katherine Barlow (who later becomes outlaw Kate Barlow) and her love affair with the black man Sam who sells onions. When a town person sees the two kiss she curses them, “She pointed a quivering finger in their direction and whispered, ‘God will punish you!’” (111). After Sam is killed and Kate turns outlaw the narrator says, “All that happened one hundred and ten years ago. Since then, not one drop of rain has fallen on Green Lake. You make the decision: Whom did God punish?” (115). The issue of racism is significant and is related to the larger theme of curse and blessing.

            The story is a skillfully woven triplet of stories: an old tale of Stanley’s ancestor, the “no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-granfather,” who brings a curse on his heirs, a story of a more recent great grandfather who gets robbed by outlaw Kissing Kate Barlow, and Stanley’s story. Sachar’s artistic use of symbolism and allegory make this a fascinating book. I interpret the older story of the original curse as an allusion to the Biblical story of Adam’s sin and the curse brought on humanity, “cursed is the ground for your sake” (Genesis 3). However Stanley and his friends may have acquired their problems, the problems are portrayed as a curse or affliction. In all three stories there is reference to a mystical river that flows against gravity, “the water runs uphill” (30,110). The symbolism of a supernatural river cannot be ignored. I view this as the author’s intentional reference to something spiritual, a reference to the life of God provided for humanity. The Bible uses this symbolism as a theme from beginning to end; rivers that flows out of Eden (Genesis), a river that flows out of a temple (Ezekiel), the river that flows from Jesus (John). I see a very strong allusion to the Biblical drama of mankind’s desperate situation and hope offered to mankind through the work of Jesus to break the power of the old curse and offer life.

            If my interpretation proves too subjective then the story still carries a very valuable message for readers. As Stanley is searching for the water they reach a point of despair, “Big Thumb was his only hope. If there was no water, no refuge, then they’d have nothing, not even hope.” (167). The message of hope is desperately needed and is incredibly healing for young people-all people! This book has a special gift for young people; it shows that being judged by society’s values or being discarded by society is not the end of the story. It shows that curses can be broken.

            I talk to young people weekly, who are incarcerated in our city’s detention center. These teens have family histories that are beyond belief to many people. I have talked to teens whose fathers were killed in gang violence. This week I talked to five teen boys. One said his parents do care about him and he will be glad to go home. Another said his parents are both in jail. One said his parents don’t want him back. Two others were very distant from their families and don’t have any connection with their father. Both of these will go into programs, vaguely similar to Camp Green Lake. The boys were all familiar with Holes. We had a great talk about the concept of having a cursed life and the hope that we can have a new life free from our past. The message of hope is incredibly valuable and Sachar has presented this message beautifully.

 

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poor in spirit

Jesus says in the introduction to his Sermon on the Mount, (Matthew 5-7) “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” This is the primary premise, and the basis of all that will follow. It is the gospel because it proclaims that those who do not deserve heaven can get in!

You may have heard that heaven is something to be earned. Many religions teach, and many people live their lives believing that we must prove ourselves to God. We may assume a kind of Darwinist view of spirituality; survival of the fittest, only the fittest, who deserve heaven, get in. Religions may teach that those who are really worthy, who pay their money, go to church and stuff like that, will enter the kindom of heaven. I’ve heard people dogmatically proclaim that there is nothing free in this life. The doctrine of karma may be like this; we get exactly what our deeds deserve. But Jesus does a reversal, he proclaims that those who do not deserve heaven can get in. This is amazing, and this is why Jesus is so radical. This is why people follow him.

This principle of Jesus means that we can come before God just as we are with no pretense. We come boldly before his throne of grace, we come to the cross for forgiveness. When we see a poor person begging beside the road they are not offering to give us something, they are asking for mercy. When we come to God we are just hitch-hikers catching a ride on Jesus. This is not my assertion or me devising an easy way, it is the rule of Jesus and the way his kingdom works. It is the way I came to God many years ago, and the way I come today.

And what is the kindom of heaven? First and most important, it is relationship with the King. Then it is being wherever he is. There is a large section on the Sermon on the Mount on my blog Ancient Path (see tab at top of page).


Land of opps

California is without a doubt the land of opportunity for those with creativity and guts. In Southern California, 1963, my dad noticed there were no shoe shine boys in the town we had moved to. In all the big cities there were plenty of shoe shine boys, usually black kids standing out on a busy corner hawking their trade next to the paper boys. My dad put me up to my first job, shoe shine. He told me how to build a box to carry my waxes, brushes and snap towel. He also instructed me the right price to ask to ensure I would always get tips.

I started one beautiful Saturday morning riding my bike into town with my shine box hanging over my shoulder. I stood on a corner and didn’t have to call out or anything, men just started lining up for their shoe shine. Then I went to the car lot where my dad worked and about a dozen salesmen, including the owner, all had their shoes shined. One thing my father had neglected to instruct me on was the finer aspects of the art of shoe shining. My problem as a novice was that I would get wax above the shoes onto the people’s socks. It didn’t show much on dark socks but boy if a guy had white sox it was a mess! After a short day of work I rode my bike over to the bank and opened my first bank account. The friendly tellers seemed quite amused, but gladly made my deposit. This was really an incredible day for a ten year old boy.

I continued this Saturday job until we moved to another city a few months later. There is one thing my mother said that I will never forget. She said that one of our relatives had commented that they thought it was shameful that I would be doing that kind of job.


Boundaries, love, sacrifice

Personal boundaries are essential to all relationships; our relationship with our spouse, friends, co-workers, job, possessions, school, government, church and our God. Boundaries define the limits of our expectations, rights and responsibilities. Boundaries are necessary in relationships like skin is to our body. If I meet someone who claims to not have boundaries, who claims to have no rights and always shares everything, I run! Boundaries are an essential part of relationships.

Many popular psychology books have written on this topic but this topic is really ancient. In the Bible when God says, “You shall not,” this is a boundary. The concept of boundaries has received some bad press because of books that fail to teach the balance of self-care with self-sacrifice. And Christians may not appreciate teaching on boundaries because it seems opposed to Biblical emphasis on selfless sacrificial love. If we begin our study of boundaries with an understanding of God’s character and with common sense understanding of nature, we will see that God does have boundaries when he gives commands and that self-care is basic to all biological life.

Self-sacrifice and sacrificial giving is also an essential element of God’s character and of nature. We see sacrifice as an essential part of our physical world in many ways; every human child born into this world is born with the sacrifice of a woman who carried and gave birth to that child. When I watch birds care for their chicks there is an incredible amount of sacrifice involved to continually feed those hungry mouths. When a human parent goes to work every day to provide for his children there is sacrifice. We also see deep within our Creator the character of self-sacrifice, “For God so loved the world that he gave…” (John 3:16). Boundaries are compatible with both self-care and self-sacrifice.

Boundaries actually help to establish the balance between self-care and self-sacrifice because when we truly care for ourselves in a healthy way, then our giving is intentional. Many of us who grew up in families where boundaries were violated will spend a lifetime trying to learn healthy love. The first boundary is a physical one; do not touch me without my permission, and do not touch others without their permission. I believe sexual purity and physical boundaries are healthy. Emotional boundaries are less easy to define but very important. We must learn the difference between our own problems and those of others. In advising Christians how to love Paul says in Galatians, “Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ…But each should also bear his own load” (6:2,5). This is a great balance passage teaching us what healthy love is.

Jesus as an example of balanced healthy love said, “No man takes away my life, but I lay it down of my own choice.” When our lives are being consumed by the demands of life we grow resentful. When others make demands upon us we grow resentful, we resist and we rebel. But when we truly love, we may choose to sacrifice. Most of the great things in life require self-sacrifice.


prey or pray?

“People are to be prayed upon, not preyed upon”

“We tend to use people and love things. But the rightful design is that we should use things, and love people”


2 prayers

Lord I thank you that so for today I haven’t lost my temper at anyone, offended anyone, haven’t lusted or taken advantage of anyone, haven’t been jealous or resentful; but soon I will have to get out of bed and face the day, then I really really need your help!!! 🙂

It is from a Franciscan Benediction…

May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half truths, and superficial relationships, so that you may live deep within your heart.

May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that you may work for justice, freedom and peace.

May God bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, and war, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and to turn their pain in to joy.

And may God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in this world, so that you can do what others claim cannot be done.



Serenity prayer- uncut

SERENITY

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

 the courage to change the things I can,

 and the wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time;

Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace;

Taking as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is,

Not as I would have it;

Trusting that you will make all things right if I surrender to your will;

So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,

 and supremely happy with you forever in the next.

Amen

Reinhold Niebuhr 1892-1971