Stanley Yelnats, overweight and coming from a family which seems to have been dogged by misfortune, is optimistic even though he is sent to a harsh young offenders’ camp in the desert when he is wrongly convicted of stealing a pair of shoes. He finds his place among the other boys and offers to help one of them, nicknamed Zero, who is illiterate. In parallel, we learn about the history of Stanley’s family and that they half-jokingly attribute their run of bad luck to a curse on one of their Latvian ancestors. When Zero attacks a sadistic camp guard and runs away, Stanley goes to find him, and together they survive in the desert, unwittingly coming across places and things which have a place in Stanley’s family history. Finally, they make their way back to the camp where a lawyer has turned up to free Stanley and who unmasks the unjust behaviour of those running the camp.
This book is a fixture on school reading lists and it’s not hard to see why. Its author certainly presents serious story elements – tough prison camp conditions, a sadistic and scheming warden and her unfriendly subordinates, the injustice of Stanley’s imprisonment and the misfortunes his family suffer from. But he does so with a very slightly larger-than-life humour which takes the edge off what might otherwise be a gritty prison camp story.
Stories intertwine throughout the book, past and present. The shoes for whose theft Stanley is imprisoned were taken, in fact, by another Camp inmate while their owner is the first to benefit from Mr Yelnat’s first successful invention. Meanwhile, Stanley’s ancestor is robbed by Kate Barlow whose own tragic history is centred on the dried-up lake where Stanley is sent to prison.
Stanley himself is likeable, an innocent fish out of water in a young offenders’ prison camp where the other inmates really are petty criminals. He muddles through, canny enough to get on the right side of the right people, but still managing to get on the wrong side of Mr Sir, second-in-command to The Warden. Mr Sir enjoys the control he holds over the boys, maliciously refusing them water, but at the same time he’s only a subordinate and suffers under the Warden in a comically scary way (involving rattlesnake venom and nail varnish).
Although the Camp is home to a few dozen young offenders, we’re never introduced to the seamier side of such places. This isn’t that kind of book. There’s not even any after-lights-out smut being talked. Not because the lads are working towards qualifications in Sweetness & Light: it’s just avoided. There’s a certain commonplace nastiness and a kind of pecking order but nothing you wouldn’t find in a school story for about the same age group.
At the centre of it all is Stanley, a happy-go-lucky lad from a family which blames its long-running misfortune on its ancestor’s failure to carry the local Wise Woman up a mountain as his side of a bargain. The story deliberately sidesteps the question of whether there really was such a curse. But it’s certainly true that the family’s luck turns just after Stanley unwittingly fulfis his ancestor’s side of the bargain.
And yet, curse or no curse, it’s Stanley’s generous hard work (helped by Zero) which unearths the remains of his ancestor’s stolen property. And it’s his inventor father’s perseverance and optimism which, independently, produces a product which makes the family money. This is not a story about looking for a magical solution; rather, it’s about making what you can of the situation you’re in.
Tim Golden is a computer programmer living in London and the editor of goodtoread.org.