Filling in the Holes: The potential queerness of Stanley Yelnats (and Zero.)
A long post with many Holes spoilers ahead.
Lately, I’ve been reading the book Holes with some of my students. This of course means I’ve been thinking about it a lot, and one thought that has wiggled into my mind and refused to leave is this idea of “what is Stanely and Zero are queer?” Or, if nothing else, function as a metaphor for queer kids and their first relationships? (note: I am using queer here as an umbrella term for anything non cis-heteronormative. This could imply them as gay, bi, pan, ace with a same-gender attraction, trans, or any other number of queer identities) Also note: I am only using the book Holes for this reading, not the movie, author’s comments, or follow up works.
Holes is a book built around the idea of inference. Much of the underlying meaning of the book is in the subtext, inferences, not directly stated. The finale chapter even tells the read that we have to “fill in the holes” ourselves to answer any lingering questions. Well, get your shovels ready my friends! We have a hole to fill.
There are three levels of this queer reading that, together, make the case for me. There is the textual relationship of Stanley and Zero, their place within the parallels to other sets of characters, and finally the Hole metaphor itself. Bear with me to then end.
1. Stanely and Zero within the text.
The central relationship of Holes is the fire-forged bond between Stanley Yelnats and Hector Zeroni, known as Zero. They become friends, look out for each other, save each other’s lives. Stanley teaches Zero how to read, risks his life to save his, even carries him up a mountain, and eventually brings Zero home with him.
Within Holes, neither Stanley or Zero are ever mentioned having an interest in girls. In fact, the only mention of girlfriends, is from X-ray, suggesting that Stanley is writing to a girlfriend so the others won’t bother him about writing to his mom. Their strongest bond is to each other.
Now, textually, all of this reads as pure platonic friendship (albeit a very strong one.) This may have even been the intention of the author while writing it. But there are some very…interesting moments that can be seen as framing this friendship as something even deeper. Notably, while on Big Thumb, Stanley watches Zero sleep for hours. At one point, he is mesmerized by the way a flower petal dances across Zero’s face as he breathes. There’s nearly two paragraphs of Stanley just watching that flower petal and being disappointed when it finally falls on the ground. That’s some friendship you got there, Stanley.
But this, in itself, is more fanfic fodder than queer reading. However, there is more.
2. The Kate and Sam parallel.
There are two sets of characters that Stanley and Zero clearly parallel in the books, with two curses that must be broken that accompany them. (Both of these pairs are male-female pairs as well)
The first and most obvious is Elya and Madame Zeroni, Stanley and Zero’s respective ancestors. Elya was cursed when he failed to carry Madame Zeroni up a mountain and let her drink from the water there. Stanley breaks this family curse by carrying Zero up Big Thumb and saving his life with the water that is there.
The SECOND parallel is far more interesting, and that is with Kate and Sam. Kate and Sam are the whirlwind tragic romance of the book. The white school teacher and the black illiterate onion picker who fall in love. The Green Lake is cursed when Sam is killed by the town and thus, Sam and Kate are ripped apart.
There are clear parallels with Sam and Zero. Both black, both illiterate, both incredibly smart (Sam is a brilliant salesman and can memorize poetry just by hearing it once, while Zero is a math genius.)
Now, SAM is run out of town after his relationship with Kate is discovered. He flees across the lake and is killed, thus cursing the Lake for a hundred years. Not a drop of rain falls on the lake and it shrivels up.
ZERO is run out of town after his relationship with Stanley comes to light. The other boys know that Stanley has been teaching Zero to read and Zero has been digging his Holes. Like the sheriff sits back and allows Sam to be killed, the counselors at the Camp sit back and let Zero run out across the lake to die.
Except, he does not die. While Kate could not save Sam, STANLEY can save Zero. He takes off after him, and eventually works to get Zero to go home with him. Once Stanley and Zero are taken home together, it begins to rain on the lake. The curse is lifted.
The lake is cursed because Sam and Kate were ripped apart. The curse on the lake is lifted when Stanley and Zero are allowed to stay together. Romantic parallels, yes?
But we have one more point to cover.
3. The holes-closetmetaphor.
Here is what I propose: digging the holes themselves is a metaphor for staying in the closet.
Being in the closet, I should start by saying, is not a state of being. It is a process. It is a constant effort, censoring yourself, watching yourself, walking on eggshells. Digging the holes within the book functions as a metaphor for this.
Every single day, Stanley and Zero dig holes. It is hard work, tiring work, dangerous in its own right. On top of that, they are constantly monitored, like those in the closet always feel eyes on them to stay hidden. The grueling, dangerous work of digging is like the dangerous work of staying in the closet. Every day, they dig the same hole, the same depth, the same with, trying to stay within the same, acceptable mold. And why do it? Because the alternative- coming out, or leaving the camp, is seen as both isolating and even MORE dangerous.
But eventually, Zero DOES leave. Tired of digging, he risks the desert.
And Stanley follows him. Like a queer kid following their first partner out of the closet, Stanley risks the desert for Zero. It nearly kills them both, like coming out can be deadly for some.
But you know what happens? Because of that risk, they both eventually end up FREE and TOGETHER by relying on each other and the strength of their relationship.
So what does all this mean?
It will be easy for many to look at this analysis and simply write it off, to attack it, that I’m trying too hard, to say terrible and homophobic things about it. And I expect that. I’m not saying that this reading was intentional by the author, but I am saying that it exists regardless.
Between the actual depth of relationship between Stanley and Zero, their clear parallel to Sam and Kate, and the poignancy of the holes-closet metaphor, I think it is WELL within reason for us to view their story as a queer story if we want to. And I do.