Column: Riding the Bus With Shipwreck and Louis Sachar By SUSAN PARKER

Tuesday January 17, 2006

In Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, I read that Louis Sachar has finally written a sequel to his best-selling, award-winning young adult novel, Holes. Reading the review of this new novel, Small Steps, reminded me of a trip I took three years ago. Although I didn’t go far, it made a lasting impression, just as the book Holes made an impression when I read it back in 1999.  

In the spring of 2003, my friend Jernae asked me to help chaperone her seventh-grade class to the Metreon to see the Hollywood movie version of Holes. I met her and her classmates in front of their school, St. Paul of the Shipwreck in Hunters Point. When the No. 15 Muni bus pulled to the corner where we stood, the driver opened the door and shouted, “Oh lord! If I’d known Shipwreck was waitin’ for me, I wouldn’t of stopped.” Then she laughed and let us on her bus.  

The bus ride felt as if I was in a shipwreck, not just riding with Shipwreck. Third Street was, and still is, under construction. The No. 15, a double-length bus, swayed back and forth, dangerously close to huge potholes, piles of rubble, and orange-clad Caltrans workers. It was not smooth sailing. 

But most of the kids were occupied with electronic devices, and they seemed not to notice the rocking and rolling. Jernae’s teacher, Mr. Quinn, told me class trips were much more peaceful than in years past. “The noise level used to be off the charts,” he said, demonstrating by rolling his eyes and making little circles with his hands around his ears. “A Shipwreck class trip used to be just that: a shipwreck. But now they all have cell phones, Game Boys, and CD players. Shipwreck kids are multi-taskers.” 

When we finally got off the bus, within the theater, and into our seats, the lights dimmed and a hush fell over the crowd. We were transported to Green Lake, Texas, where our hero, Stanley Yelnats, has been sent to juvenile detention. Stanley digs holes every day in a dry lake bed under the hot desert sun in order, he is told, to build his character. In truth, the wicked warden is looking for buried treasure and is using the young inmates as her personal excavating machines. Stanley has to fight off vicious rattlesnakes, deadly yellow-spotted lizards, and other juvenile delinquents. He’s been sent to Camp Green Lake unfairly. The future looks grim. 

When the movie ended, Mr. Quinn asked his students which did they liked better, the book or film version. “The book!” shouted all 14 Shipwreckers, and then they got back on the No. 15 and stared at their Game Boys. In front of the school, at the corner of Jamestown Avenue and Third Street, we parted company. 

A few weeks later the Archdiocese of San Francisco closed down St. Paul of the Shipwreck Elementary School as a cost-saving measure. The students scattered. Some enrolled in different Catholic schools across the city; others went to public schools. Jernae bounced around in several parochial and San Francisco Unified junior highs before finally winding up at her current high school in Vallejo.  

There won’t, of course, be anymore class trips with the Shipwreckers, which is too bad, because I really liked their M.O. But if I’m lucky, I’ll find another group of seventh graders, or at least one pre-teen to read Louis Sachar’s newest novel with. Small Steps is recommended for children age ten and older. It features two of the characters from the first novel, Armpit and X-Ray. According to the Times review, there are “...no poison lizards or buried treasure, just racism, adult indifference and the arduous daily struggle against them.” Sounds like a good book for all of us. 


Louis Sachar will read from Small Steps (published by Delacorte Press) on Jan. 26 at Books Inc., 3515 California St., San Francisco, at 6:30 p.m.; and on Jan. 27 at Stanley Middle School, 3455 School St., Lafayette, at 7 p.m.