The palindromic Stanley Yelnats seems to be a perennial loser- overweight, humiliated by both teachers and students at his high school and seemingly the latest victim of his family curse. Stanley is convicted of stealing a pair of baseball star Clyde "sweet feet" Livingston and offered a choice of going to jail or to Camp Green Lake in Texas. Stanley's family are poor, so he has never been to summer camp. However when he arrives there, nothing as it first appears- not least the camp, which is neither green nor on a lake.
The boys, are assigned the task of digging a hole a day in the parched, cracked desert. But like the misleading name of the camp, the task is also not all it seems: they are told they are building character by digging holes 5 ft by 5 ft, but the warden's motives are also not what they first appear.
Ironically, however, Stanley does indeed build character when he is there; he is given a new identity by the other boys, who give each other nicknames (Stanley is Caveman; his tent-mates include Armpit, X-ray and Zigzag). He learns to take responsibility for himself and for Zero, tormented for being illiterate.
There are two other stories interwoven with the Camp Green Lake thread- the story of Stanley's great- great- grandfather, who his descendents believe is the cause of the curse on his family, and that of Kissin' Kate Barlow, the bandit who stole the wealth of Stanley's only successful ancestor. There is a great deal of coincidence and serendipity in the story, but it is managed with such flair and humour that I couldn't feel cynical about it. There are themes of loyalty, justice, fairness and the power of story, for good and for ill; Stanley is not alone in accepting uncritically the story of his family. And as Sachar says of curses, but could be applied to the power of story: "A lot of people don't believe in yellow-spotted lizards either, but if one bites you, it doesn't make a difference whether you believe in it or not."
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