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Now the real digging begins

Small Steps A Novel Louis Sachar Delacorte Press: 258 pp., $16.95

January 15, 2006|Sonja Bolle | Sonja Bolle is a freelance book editor. She reviews children's books for Newsday.

"NOW you be careful out in the real world," Armpit warns Stanley at the end of "Holes," Louis Sachar's beloved 1998 novel for young readers, as the two boys are about to be sprung from the juvenile detention facility Camp Green Lake. "Not everybody is as nice as us."

What a setup to a sequel that turns out to be. The incarcerated crew that Stanley Yelnats (a.k.a. Caveman) joined in "Holes" may have been tough, but it's nothing compared to what Armpit finds when he tries to walk the straight and narrow out in the real world of "Small Steps." This novel, focusing on a minor character from "Holes," ought properly to be called a spin-off rather than a sequel. The distinction may sound unimportant, but it will matter to readers who loved "Holes" -- which includes practically everyone who's been in the fifth grade since the book's publication -- as well as to those who may have immersed themselves in Sachar's other series (the Wayside School and Marvin Redpost books).

"Small Steps" is nothing like "Holes." Where "Holes" had fairy-tale elements -- ogre-like jailers, a gypsy curse, a plant with magical qualities, a happy ending that carried Stanley off into the sunset as a millionaire -- "Small Steps" is firmly rooted in the grubby realities of urban life. But it does have Sachar's trademark humor, way with insightful relationships and deft hand with outrageous plots.

At Green Lake, the boys were assigned to dig a round hole -- 5 feet deep and 5 feet wide -- each day of their detention. At his new job, Armpit is still digging, although now for a salary. He opens trenches for a landscaping service that installs irrigation systems in the fancy neighborhoods of Austin, Texas. How the landscaper loves to hire Green Lake alums! They're such efficient diggers. He is the only one who appreciates Armpit's background, however; everyone else treats him like a criminal, even though the crime that landed him at Green Lake was merely an altercation over a bag of popcorn. It doesn't help that Armpit is large and African American, the type of guy white pedestrians cross the street to avoid. Even his own parents are subjecting him to random drug testing.

Armpit, though, is trying to stay focused on the advice of his halfway-house counselor, who has told him that the secret to putting his life back on track is "to take small steps and just keep moving forward." Hence the job -- he's saved $857 so far -- and his summer-school classes, so he can finish high school. "If you think life was unfair before you went to prison," the counselor explains, "it's going to be twice as bad when you go back. People are going to expect the worst from you, and will treat you that way."

If there's a bright spot in Armpit's life, it is his friendship with his 10-year-old neighbor, Ginny. She has cerebral palsy; small steps are her reality. On their daily walks, the two can relax in each other's company, since they both understand what it is to be closely and anxiously observed for missteps.

Then one day while Armpit is at work, an old pal from Green Lake, X-Ray, drops by with a business proposition. He has hatched a great moneymaking scheme but needs some cash to get it started. That's what Armpit can provide, now that he's a hard-working citizen. It's all perfectly legal, X-Ray adds reassuringly: "I checked."

X-Ray's scheme is to scalp tickets for an upcoming concert by teen sensation Kaira DeLeon. He intuitively understands the law of supply and demand that Armpit has been struggling with in his economics class. Neither of them suspect, however, that there might be an equally important lesson to be learned in public relations trickery. X-Ray has heard that scalpers got rich selling tickets to DeLeon's last concert. His "inside information," however, is nothing but a rumor, industriously spread by Kaira's crooked manager to make the concert seem "hot."

Naturally, Armpit cannot resist his buddy's pitch, and naturally, no good can come of this.

The setup for "Small Steps" is somewhat slow going. Sachar struggles a bit to relate Armpit's economics class to the ticket-scalping scheme, to contrast the disabled friend with the gangster-like pal and the spoiled teen diva, and to deliver general lessons in social science. ("The steady flow of cars and trucks divides the city of Austin in half, not just geographically, but also economically, and to some extent, racially.") But once the story is up and running, the relationships between the characters take over and the reader is hooked.

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