Louis Sachar: The Cardturner
High school junior Alton Richards is gearing up for a bummer summer. Dumped by his girlfriend (for his best friend, no less), with no money and no job on the horizon, he is bullied by his parents into driving his ailing (and extremely wealthy) great uncle Lester to his bridge club. Alton’s parents are determined to stay on dear old Uncle Lester’s good side in case he kicks the bucket any time soon. Alton is more than just a chauffeur, though—he is his uncle’s ‘cardturner’. Uncle Lester is a brilliant bridge player, but he’s blind as a bat, and Alton is in charge of telling him what cards he holds and playing the cards Lester tells him to play. Along the way, Alton meets a host of interesting characters, all of whom are avid bridge players—including a distant cousin (of sorts), who is young, pretty, and is rumored to be crazy as a loon. Before he knows it, Alton finds himself fascinated by the ins and outs of this complicated game. But when his uncle’s health takes a turn for the worse, bridge quickly becomes the least complicated part of his life.
Subjective Appeal: Award-Winning Author, The Wild World of Card Games
The subjective appeal of a novel like this is not always immediately obvious. There are no dragons here; no princesses to be rescued or aliens to be annihilated. There are no vampires or werewolves or scrappy teens fighting for their lives. There isn’t even much teenage angst or romantic drama. Alton is just an ordinary boy living an ordinary life. Fortunately, Louis Sachar is not an ordinary writer. With the same flair for storytelling that won him such acclaim in Holes, he creates characters we care about and makes their relatively uneventful lives interesting. Don’t get me wrong—the story is perfectly acceptable. But it is the skill of the storyteller that really makes this book.
Of course, for the juvenile card sharp, the subject matter of the book may itself be a draw. Young poker aficionados or fans of euchre, Go Fish, gin, blackjack, or any of a host of other card games may jump at the chance to read a book centered around a deck of cards—and learn a new game along the way. In the wake of role playing games, board games, and video games, the number of individuals devoted to a simple 52-card deck may be dwindling, but doubtless there are still a few out there. And for the rest of us, Louis Sachar’s writing is more than good enough to draw us into the less-than-scintillating subject matter.
Developmental Value: Cross-generational Comaraderie and an Introduction to Bridge
It is not surprising that a book about bridge involves a lot of older characters. In fact, seventeen-year-old Alton spends precious little time with his peers—the bulk of his summer is spent surrounded by retirees, his kid sister, his ‘crazy’ pseudo cousin, and other atypical companions for a teenage boy. Though he is at first less than enthused by the prospect of hanging out at the bridge club four days a week, Alton learns to appreciate the company of those outside his age bracket, and the most engaging characters he meets are well into their golden years.
While his parents’ interest in Uncle Lester begins and ends with the contents of his bank account, Alton is in awe of his great-uncle’s incredible skill and memory. Crotchety Uncle Lester refuses to let his blindness keep him from the game he loves, and can remember not only every card in his hand, but every card played over the course of a whole tournament, and even hands he played decades previously. The other players recall the halcyon days when bridge was an enormously popular pastime, even among young people. Alton listens to their stories (particularly the curious stories of Uncle Lester’s former partner, the infamous Annabel, and the mystery surrounding her disappearance), pays attention to their advice, and benefits from their wisdom. He learns about partnership, trust, and the ability to let go of mistakes (an absolute must for any successful card player).
In a culture where youth and beauty are prized above all else and like calls to like, this cross-generational camaraderie and respect are a welcome change—and may serve to encourage young readers to seek out and truly value those older, younger, or simply different than themselves. A book about a boy who spends his summer playing cards with old people might not seem like bestseller material. And indeed, it is unlikely to become one. There is nothing here to seize the public consciousness with quite the frenetic fever (and fervor) that tends to accompany modern bestsellers. This is, quite simply, a really good book. And given the subject matter, this is itself a testament to Sachar’s ability as a writer.
In another bold—and risky—move, Louis Sachar has decided to introduce his young readers to one of his most beloved pastimes: the game of bridge. Sachar is under no illusions here; he knows full well that this is an enormous undertaking and will require loads of explanation. A book like this could easily be boring (if the author explains too much) or confusing (if the author explains too little). Louis Sachar somehow manages to avoid both landmines. His explanations are just long enough to communicate the necessary information, and the light and even humorous tone keeps the reader from getting bogged down in dry details. This is no treatise; Sachar makes sure the reader understands just enough to appreciate the events as they transpire. But he does it well, with a skill and self-awareness that many a science fiction or other more ‘technical’ fiction writer would do well to imitate.
He even offers readers the option of skipping much of the explanation for a much more concise ‘bottom line’. Lengthier explanations are set off by tiny images of whales (in a clever homage to the description-heavy Moby Dick) and the ‘bottom line’ is enclosed in an easy-to-spot summary box. The end result is a book that is accessible (and enjoyable) for longtime bridge players and newcomers alike. I suspect this book will draw more than a few new players to the game of bridge. And in this internet age of sound bytes, commercials, and dwindling attention spans, a little more bridge playing may be just what the doctor ordered.
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