The Cardturner by Louis Sachar

The Cardturner by Louis SacharWhen I was in elementary school, I somehow obtained a copy of Sideways Stories from Wayside School. I don’t remember how I got it. I just remember that it was the funniest book I had ever read. I wanted everyone else to read it, too. I wanted everyone to know about Miss Zarves, Bebe Gunn, the Three Erics, and (something I still say) “a thousand, a million, three.” In fact, we often had a parent come in and read to us just before lunch, and I remember my mom read the chapter about Leslie’s pigtails. When the pigtails talked, she did a high squeaky voice that I still find hilarious. We have Sideways Stories at my school, and I constantly recommend it to students. It is possible that I get a little bit overly excited when they check it out. That book (and its sequels) turned me into a Louis Sachar fan (I was also quite partial to Sixth Grade Secrets), and I was beyond thrilled to see The Cardturner when it showed up in my mail on Monday evening. I immediately quit the other book I was reading and started it instead.

The first thing you should know is that The Cardturner is about bridge. I know, I don’t know anything about bridge, either. I can play spades and poker and I used to play rummy with my grandpa, but bridge (and pinochle with its crazy deck) seem awfully complicated. But this is why Louis Sachar is so good at what he does – I managed to understand what was going on even though I don’t know anything about bridge. As you would expect, I learned along with Alton, our main character. There is even a handy Moby Dick motif that shows up when Alton starts explaining bridge. If it’s in too much detail, you can just skip the whaling chapters.

Alton doesn’t know much about his great-uncle Lester except that he’s rich and that his parents are always encouraging him to suck up to him. So when Lester, who is blind, finds himself in need of someone to drive him to bridge tournaments and play his cards, Alton’s parents happily volunteer him. At first, Alton has no idea what is happening, but as he learns more about the game and his uncle (who prefers to be called Trapp), he begins to grow in confidence and maturity. As they become closer, they share thoughts on ideas and synchronicity that become crucial to the resolution of the story. Both of these characters are on a journey: Trapp wants to win at nationals, while Alton needs to stop letting things just happen to him and start taking control. As they push each other along those paths, we get to enjoy a memorable cast of characters, a family mystery, some suspenseful games, a little bit of romance, and a whole lot of bridge talk.

Mike asked me if this was going to be the next Holes. I told him it was okay if it was just its own thing, rather than having to be something else. I did see parallels to Holes in the way that family secrets were revealed and then redeemed by the characters’ actions, which is a theme that I appreciate in both books. More than anything, I loved that this book was firmly aimed at teenagers. Lots of my students (especially my boys) like Holes, and it would be great to have something else to give to some of my older boys. It’s not going to be quite as accessible as Holes, but it is a strong, memorable book, and I enjoyed every minute of it. Am I going to go learn how to play bridge? No, indeed. But it made me appreciate people who take the time to play it well.

There is a point in the book when Alton looks at everything he said to his great-uncle and realized how incredibly rude, insensitive, and just plain stupid he’s been all along. I loved that moment because we have all been there, and it is an important moment for Alton as he begins to think more deeply about the things that he has been told and the people in his life. This is a great book from a longtime favorite author of mine, one who is still at the top of his own game.

Random House provided me with a copy of this book to review. My opinions are my own.

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