Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998
“A woman puts on lipstick and kisses men she just killed!” is how my granddaughter described the assigned school reading book she was finishing. Curious about that and more she said about it, I picked this book up from the library and saw it is a Newberry Medal winner in children’s literature. Mildly surprised, I was interested in reading a book that sounded so very different from what I was told to read as a child and I wanted to better understand my granddaughter’s reading preferences since I like to buy her books.
The scene of the teacher turning into the soon to be feared Kissin’ Kate Barlow a hundred fifty or so years ago, was a pivotal event in the emotional arcs of the book. The day before the innocent one-room schoolteacher had romantically kissed the Negro onion picker of the town. When it was witnessed, and they were being attacked, they ran off together, but when all was said and done her loved onion picker was dead and Kissin’ Kate Barlow gave the white sheriff the kiss he desired after she killed him.
This is the scene that most impressed my granddaughter, but it is not the point of the book. The book alternates between scenes of historical flashbacks and focusing on the lives of two contemporary boys who have been sent to a hard work camp in the middle of a desert due to minor juvenile crimes. The boys are descendants of the people in the stories of yore and are caught up in being forced to find treasure of that time for the cruel female warden of the camp by digging five foot sized holes everyday with all the incarcerated boys.
Not gripping by the adult standards of mystery, it mixed childhood trauma and social injustice into an introductory salad for young discerning readers. In the chapter on Kate’s postmortem kiss, the beginning of her outlaw life and the drying up of the town’s lake which is the only source of water, Sacher outright charges young readers with: You make the decision: Whom did God punish? That surprised me with its assumption, and therefore only answer, of a vindictive god, but generally he wasn’t so blatant.
Holes does seem like a good book (and by librarian standards a great one) to accustom newer readers to the use of chapters (there are 50 in 233 pages) and more sophisticated reading. They deal with symbols, clues, cultural beliefs that presume the curse on the father falls on the son, following conversations, and acknowledging the effects of inequality in children’s lives.