These first chapters recount the bus journey of Stanley Yelnats IV from his hometown in Texas to Camp Green Lake, a correctional facility for young criminal offenders. Stanley is an overweight and unlucky boy who was caught with a pair of sneakers belonging to a famous baseball player, who intended to auction them off for charity, and he has been sentenced to time at Camp Green Lake instead of in jail.
Despite this conviction, Stanley is innocent of the theft of which he has been accused, and actually - improbably - found the sneakers when they fell from the sky and into his hands. Since his father is an inventor working on a cure for foot odor, Stanley believes the sneakers are his "destiny," maybe even a "gift from God" that will signal a turn for the better in his family's unfortunate circumstances (24). Instead - and Stanley attributes this bad luck to a family curse - he is arrested and sent to Camp Green Lake to do his time and eventually be rehabilitated into society.
After a long and dusty bus ride, Stanley arrives in Camp Green Lake, which to his surprise is neither green nor near a lake. In fact, the camp consists of a couple of buildings in the middle of a vast dried lake basin, with nothing but desert for miles in every direction.
The first person who Stanley meets is Mr. Sir, a rather abrasive official at the camp who tells him that he can try to run away if he wants, but that he will die of thirst and heat stroke before he gets to safety. Mr. Sir seems to have a relatively luxurious, lazy lifestyle in comparison with the boys at the camp, who eat disgusting food, sleep on smelly cots, and get a very limited amount of water to drink and to shower in.
Mr. Pendanski, another counselor at the camp, helps Stanley settle into his new home: D tent, where he is introduced to his six tent-mates. All the boys at the camp go by strange nicknames like "Magnet," "Zero," and "Armpit," and refuse to answer to their normal names. None of the other boys at Camp Green Lake believe that Stanley was arrested for stealing such a famous baseball player's shoes, and Stanley thinks it's funny that no one believed him back in the city when he said he didn't steal them.
The novel opens with a description of the harsh, unforgiving landscape that surrounds Camp Green Lake. This is apt because the setting plays such a large role in Holes. The harshness of the scenery mirrors the difficult conditions in which the boys live and work, and the fact that the vast desert serves as a way of keeping the inmates imprisoned without any guards or fences is very powerful, especially in light of Stanley and Zero's later attempt to escape.
The irony, of course, is that the camp is neither green nor by a lake, and this parallels the string of disillusionments and disappointments in the life of Stanley, the protagonist.
The description in the first chapter is set out in a very matter-of-fact way, letting the reader know how things stand and giving some insight into the power dynamics of the camp: "[The hammock] belongs to the Warden. The Warden owns the shade" (3). The power relationships between the people in the camp are clear, which is important, because the abuse of power by adult authority figures over their adolescent wards is a key theme in the novel.
Any uncertainty in the setting comes from the unpredictable and often dangerous forces of nature that are at work in the desert landscape - Sachar notes that if you are bitten by a scorpion, you won't die, at least, not "usually" (4). However, the bite of a yellow-spotted lizard is fatal, and death is the only thing that allows campers to transcend the rules of the camp authority figures. If you get bitten by a lizard, Sachar writes, "you might as well go... lie in the hammock" because "[t]here is nothing anyone can do to you anymore" (4).
The tone of the first chapter is thus very intimidating, and we are provided with a clear depiction of Camp Green Lake and the forces that are at play in it: the perils of the scenery and the animals that inhabit it, and the strict authoritarianism of the camp counselors. Camp Green Lake keeps its young criminals in line through the double-headed tyranny of adults and nature.
The themes of inevitability, destiny, and bad luck are also introduced in this section, primarily in Chapter 6, during Stanley's account of the event that sent him to prison. A series of unfortunate events - Stanley is bullied, his books are dropped in the toilet, he misses the bus - coincide to put him in exactly the wrong place at the wrong time. More irony follows: the fall of the infamous pair of sneakers from the sky, which Stanley heralds as an act of God and "destiny" that will help his father's business and change his life for the better, ends up being the reason he is arrested and sent to Camp Green Lake (24). (Arguably, this is actually a good thing, given that Stanley going to Camp Green Lake is what eventually allows him to break the curse on his family, but in these opening chapters, it seems like a disaster.) Stanley just can't catch a break. Remarkably, this string of bad luck, which we learn stretches back for decades in the Yelnats family, is so well-known and accepted among the members of the family that they view it almost as "a family joke" and Stanley is able to smile at his misfortune (7). This is an example of someone who is strong in the face of hardship, and this sense of humor will serve Stanley well over his time at Camp Green Lake.