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When Elya Yelnats was fifteen he was in love with an empty headed girl. Madame Zeroni gave Elya a piglet to raise so that he could win the girl’s hand by gifting her father with a fatted pig. In return, Elya promised to carry Madame Zeroni up a mountain to drink “where the water runs uphill”. When the girl chooses not to marry Elya, he is so distraught that he catches a boat to America, forgetting his promise to Madame Zeroni. The Yelnats family has had bad luck ever since.
At Camp Green Lake Stanley is given the nickname “Caveman”, this shows that for the first time in his life, Stanley has some acceptance from a peer group. He grows stronger and tougher as he battles the harsh conditions at the camp, digging in the desert heat. He becomes friends with a boy called Zero by agreeing to teach him how to read in exchange for help digging. This upsets the other boys and causes a fight. In the aftermath, Zero hits a counselor with a shovel and runs away into the desert. It is guessed that Zero will die out there and no one will care. His records are destroyed.
Deciding to help his friend, Stanley steals a water truck and goes out after Zero. He drives the truck into a hole, gets out of the truck and runs away. He heads out across the desert toward a rock that looks like “God’s thumb,” the place where his grandfather, the first Stanley Yelnats, survived after being robbed by Kissin’ Kate Barlow.
One hundred and ten years before Green Lake was a beautiful place where Katherine Barlow taught school. She fell in love with Sam, the onion man who sold onions as food and medicine in the town.
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The Warden at Camp Green Lake is a descendant of Trout Walker. She tells people that the boys there dig holes to build character. In reality she is continuing the search for Kate Barlow’s treasure. While digging one of his holes Stanley finds a gold lipstick tube with the initials K.B. engraved on it but he gives it to another boy to turn in to the Warden. The Warden has the boys dig frantically in the area where she believes the lipstick tube was buried. Only Stanley knows where it was really found.
Stanley continues to walk across the lakebed and finds Zero under the remains of a boat. Zero survives by eating the remains of preserved peaches that had sunk with the boat. Stanley convinces Zero to head toward “God’s thumb” with him. Zero is weak and sick. They make it to the mountain, but Zero is too weak to climb so Stanley carries him up. They find wild onions and water that seems to have run uphill at the top of the rock formation.
After a few days the boys have regained their strength and decide to go back to the camp to try and dig up Kate Barlow’s treasure. Under cover from the night sky the boys return to the hole where Stanley had found the lipstick tube. Stanley digs up a suitcase just as the Warden arrives. In the light of flashlights the boys see that they are covered with yellow spotted lizards. They stay completely still until the sun rises and the lizards go down into the shade, off of the boys.
By then the State Attorney General and a lawyer hired by Stanley’s father arrive. The Warden tries to claim the suitcase as her own but Zero using his newly acquired reading skills, reads the name Stanley Yelnats on the side if the suitcase. The Attorney General and the lawyer take Stanley away. Stanley refuses to leave without Zero. There are no longer any records to keep him there, so Zero is released with Stanley.
It turns out that Zero’s real name is Hector Zeroni. He is the great great great grandson of Madame Zeroni, the gypsy that had cursed Stanley’s great great grandfather. By carrying Zero up the mountain, Stanley had broken the curse.