A single conflict and question dominates all three intertwining narratives in Louis Sachar’s Holes: Are people subject to fate and more or less helpless to shape their lives, or can people choose to act in ways that either promote or hinder their well-being? Is it the case, as the old adage has it, that “fortune favors the brave,” that some things in life are beyond people’s control, but that they can shape their destinies with each decision they make? The novel’s interwoven stories lean toward this last and more hopeful theme. Each person’s decisions matter, regardless of what happens to them and around them. 

This conflict plays out most clearly and completely in the story arc of the novel’s protagonist, Stanley Yelnats. The son, grandson, great-grandson, and great-great-grandson of people who have apparently had very bad luck, Stanley continues the family tradition by being falsely accused of theft. This is the novel’s inciting incident, though the details are revealed slowly over several chapters. Stanley’s bad luck earns him a stint at Camp Green Lake, where more bad luck seems to pursue him. Yet as the rising action begins with Stanley’s arrival at the camp, what seems to be bad luck gradually reveals the answers to generations-old family mysteries and offers second chances​ to correct —because of the decisions that Stanley makes. 

Conditions at Camp Green Lake force Stanley into hard choices. The adults who are supposedly helping him are exploitative and punitive. Many of the campers are hostile and aggressive, and more than one wants Stanley to line up behind him, literally and figuratively. The daily work ​of digging holes ​blisters his hands, and the daily water supply is insufficient. The environment threatens him and all the campers. Stanley could react by becoming selfish, like X-Ray is at first, or by bullying other campers, as Squid does, or by acting violently, like Zigzag. He could try to please Mr. Sir or Mr. Pendanski by turning on other campers. But like his parents, Stanley is thoughtful and not quick to give up or give in. 

As the rising action continues and Stanley gets better at digging, each opposing force strengthens him, and luck—if it exists—seems to turn his way. ​Stanley’s choices weave webs of connection and relation that benefit him and other campers​. Because he is willing to let X-Ray pretend to find the lipstick tube, Stanley gains an ally. Even though the decision causes Mr. Sir to pick on him, the ensuing trouble with the Warden helps Stanley deduce why she has the boys digging hole after hole. In another example, because Stanley does not assume, as Mr. Pendanski and others do, that Zero is unable to learn, not only does Zero start to fill in the huge gaps in his education, but he and Stanley become friends. And their loyalty to each other, after the fight that breaks out on the lakebed, pushes the rising action toward the story’s climax and brings together the present and past narrative arcs. 

As this rising action occurs ​at the camp, other forces are at work as well. Stanley does not learn about them ​​​until ​later, but when he does, it seems that fate has been on his side all along. His parents have hired a smart lawyer to help him, and his school nemesis testifies that Stanley did not steal the shoes. Past actions, too, conspire to help Stanley and Zero. The wreck of the Mary Lou, hidden in the desert with the remaining peach preserves, awaits the boys as they flee the camp. These artifacts belong to the story of Kate and Sam’s love and the violent, racist reaction of the townspeople of Green Lake. Sam dies because of hatred, and Kate turns into an outlaw, but Sam’s onions continue to thrive on the Big Thumb, ready to nourish and heal the boys. Most important, the suitcase is out there, left behind by Stanley’s great-grandfather after Kate robbed him and left him to die. It holds the family’s missed fortune, and it is Stanley’s destiny to find ​​it. However, none of these forces would have been of use to Stanley if he had not made choices that reveal his character. He has integrity and loyalty, a strong sense of justice, and ​courage​. When he carries Zero up the hill, he succeeds where his pig-stealing grandfather failed, and that moment is the story’s climax. 

The falling action is full of reversals. The schemes of the exploitative adults, especially the Warden, are ruined. Rain returns to Green Lake after a century of drought, and the camp becomes what it should always have been, not a place of abuse and punishment but of joy and adventure in nature. And of course, two families are restored as Stanley’s father finally makes his breakthrough and Hector (Zero) is reunited with his mother. The choices of the past—​whether Elya’s choice to break his promise to carry Madame Zeroni up the mountain, or the choice of the people of Green Lake to punish Kate and murder Sam, or Kate’s choice to take her revenge​—led to destruction. But Stanley bucks the family curse, if it exists. Because he responds to the setbacks that life throws at him with compassion, intelligence, and loyalty, the conflict reaches a satisfying resolution in reunited families and hopeful futures.