Synopsis: Stanley Yelnats is in trouble for taking shoes that fell from the sky. Hey, he didn’t know they belonged to Clyde “Sweet Feet” Livingston and were stolen from a charity auction! He is offered a choice: jail, or Camp Green Lake. Duh. The camp is neither green nor on a lake, but is a huge wasteland in the middle of Texas. The prisoners dig holes 5 ft wide, 5 ft deep every day in this area… to build character. It’s pretty obvious they are looking for something.
Let’s do a little background on Stanley before we introduce the other campers: his family is cursed. No, really, it is. His great-great-grandfather Elya didn’t fulfill his end of a promise with an Egyptian woman, Madame Zeroni. Elya’s competing with the pig farmer to marry the town beauty (and nitwit) Myra. Mme. Z. gives him a runt out of her pig’s litter, and instructs him to carry the pig to the mountaintop to drink, and it will grow to be fat and he will grow stronger. The only condition to giving him this pig is that he will carry her up the mountain to drink from the waters, or his family will be cursed for eternity. He agrees, and does the deal with the pig. When it comes to time for bargaining, Elya’s pig and the pig farmer’s pig were the same size because Elya didn’t follow directions to the letter. When Myra couldn’t choose her husband without picking a number, Elya conceded, gave his pig as a wedding gift, and jumped on a boat to America before fulfilling his promise to carry Madame Zeroni. He remembers to ask for Zeroni’s son, who’s in America, but can’t find him. He has a string of bad luck, which apparently is passed down generation to generation. The luckiest was Stanley Yelnats I, Elya’s son (our Stan’s great-grandfather). He made a lot of money in the stock market, but got robbed by Kissin’ Kate Barlow. If it wasn’t for her, they’d be living it up in California. But alas, Stanley III is an inventor without success, and Stanley IV is currently digging holes.
Stanley is at least making friends. He’s overweight so he was made fun of in school, but the kids at camp accept him. They all have nicknames: X-ray (the leader), Armpit, Squid, Magnet, Zigzag, and Zero (this seems to be his real name). The “counselors” are Mr. Sir and Mr. Pendanski. The kids dub Stanley “Caveman” since he found a fish fossil. The only rule at Camp Green Lake is not to piss off the Warden. Also, anything found in the holes must be reported to the Warden. Stanley actually finds something with the initals KB, but gives it to X-Ray so he can have the day off and be on X-ray’s good side. Warden gets really excited when this happens, and the boys have to re-dig and search for a while. However, they’re digging in the wrong spot.
The Warden is a scary, tall, red-headed lady. She paints her nails with snake venom, for example, which is harmless after it dries, but ooo if she gets it in a wound… ouch. “Caveman” is caught with something of Mr. Sir’s, and even though Magnet was the culprit Stanley takes the blame. The Warden scratches Mr. Sir with wet polish (I didn’t understand why she attacked Mr. Sir, but it may have been to make Stanley’s punishment worse: mad Mr. Sir=no water in Texas wasteland). When he returns from the Warden’s office, Zero has dug most of Stanley’s hole because Stanley took the fall for someone else. Zero has asked Stanley before to teach him how to read, and Stanley finally agrees. Zero offers to keep digging part of Stan’s hole, and he takes him up on that so Zero won’t be stuck waiting around for Stanley to finish. The other boys are not fans of this arrangement, and they get in a fight. Zero ends up hitting Mr. Pendanski with his shovel (Pendanski had it out for Zero and he did provoke him) and Zero ran. Since Zero was a ward of the state and he ran, the Warden says to destroy his records so no one would be looking for him. Stanley decides to go help Zero, and he runs after him. (He tried taking the water truck with him, but that didn’t work out: he drove it in a hole.) He catches up with Zero, who has found some old jars of spiced peaches and has finished them off. They decide to go towards the mountain that looks like a thumbs-up. Stanley seems to recognize it from his great-grandpa’s story about the only thing that saved him after Kissin’ Kate robbed him was God’s thumb.
More background on Kissin’ Kate Barlow (120-some years ago): Katherine Barlow was a school teacher and best spiced peach maker in the Green Lake community, when there was an actual lake and the land was prosperous. Long story short, the gorgeous Katherine fell in love with a black man, Sam the onion man. They kissed, and the town, led by “Trout” Walker, rioted and killed Sam. Kate became a famed robber and was known as “Kissin’ Kate” because she kissed those she killed. (So Stanley’s great-grandfather was never kissed by her, just robbed.) She buried her treasure somewhere in the dried lake bed. Trout and his wife held Kate at gun point to find the treasure, but Kate gets bitten by a poisonous lizard. Kate tells the Walkers they’d search a hundred years and would never find it.
Back to our heroes: Stanley and Zero head in the direction of the thumb, but Zero’s pretty weak. Stan ends up carrying him most of the way there. This journey lasts a while, but not sure how long. Zero tells Stanley he stole the sneakers that Stanley got blamed for, which is an interesting twist. He got scared and put them on a parked car on an overpass (thus, the shoes that fell from the sky). They continue on, and along the way, Stanley finds an onion patch and realizes water has to be somewhere. They do find water and use empty peach jars to carry it. Stanley also makes some connections from the hole he found the KB souvenir in, and realizes it must have more treasure. He and Zero sneak back to camp and dig at night to see what else is in Stan’s hole. They find an old suitcase, but Warden catches them. They’re stuck in the hole for a while because the hole is also the home of poisonous lizards; the adults are afraid but the lizards don’t mess with the boys. (We learn later it has to do with onions.) Zero is trying to read the suitcase. The Attorney General and a lawyer were at the camp the previous day to release Stanley, who was proven innocent, and they return while the boys are stuck in the hole. The boys get pulled up and Zero says the trunk belongs to Stanley, not the Warden. He figured out that the trunk read “Stanley Yelnats,” and it’s the treasure Kate stole from Stanley I. Oh, and Zero? That’s not his real name. It’s Hector Zeroni. Let’s just say, the curse is broken, and lots of good things are coming their way.
This was the first time I had read this book, and it’s flipping brilliant. I know Sachar from Sideways Stories from Wayside School and while this book isn’t supposed to be laugh-out-loud like Sideways, you can hear his voice and his humor (example: when describing Elya Yelnats, he calls him Stanley’s great-great-grandfather but has an aside that says he didn’t KNOW he was Stanley’s great-great-grandfather. Hilarious, right?) There are a lot of subtleties in the book that I had to stop and go, wait, let me read that again… and it was all there. It felt like a Harry Potter book, where there’s so much cluing you in that you don’t realize everything until the end. And even Stanley’s name screams Sachar. There are a lot of funny names in Sideways but Stanley Yelnats? Yeah, it’s a palindrome that keeps getting passed down simply because it’s a palindrome. Generational things are passed down quite a bit, whether it be curses or names. It has really interesting commentary about the actions of people as well. For example, a townsperson screams God will curse Kate and Onion Sam when she sees the two kiss. After they kill Sam, it never rained again on Green Lake. Sachar asks, “Reader, who do you think God cursed?” WOW. Beautiful work.
The Class Part
Grades: 4th & up, or ages 10 & up (according to back of the book). My mentor teacher is actually teaching this in summer school for rising 6-8 graders. Some of my lower readers from last year are really enjoying it. It’s an easy book to get through the main information, but it’s so deep that you can re-read it and catch something new, or spend a lot of conversation about the book in class. I’ll have it in any grade I teach.
Grade: A. I can’t argue with a Newbery Medal, no matter how many A’s I give out! Maybe I’ll try to read a bad book on purpose next time.
Just me: I’m still trying to find the balance between telling you about a book and not spoiling it. If you have any suggestions, let me know. ALSO, I am totally open to debate. If you think a book is not worthy of an A, or is inappropriate for some ages or I underestimate the reading ability of different age groups, let me know. This blog is meant to be helpful to me and you. I know I don’t have a following or anything 🙂 but still. I’m open to opinions.