The Cardturner


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Book Review

This review was created by the editorial staff at Thriving Family magazine

This humorous, realistic fiction book by Louis Sachar is published by Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books and is written for kids ages 12 and up. The age range reflects readability and not necessarily content appropriateness.

Plot Summary

Alton Richards is a soon-to-be high school senior whose summer is not going well. His girlfriend broke up with him only to start dating his best friend, Cliff. The Richards family struggles financially, unable to complete the swimming pool started in their backyard; Alton’s car has mechanical issues; and his dad gets laid off. Summer stretches before him, but he is too lazy to search for a job.

Lester Trapp, Alton’s gruff great uncle, is a rich, aging diabetic and accomplished bridge player — almost a Grand Life Master. Alton’s family loves Uncle Lester for his money, which they morbidly have hoped and planned to inherit for much of their lives. They believe they compete with the Castaneda family for the inheritance. The Castaneda family stems from those related to Uncle Lester’s former bridge partner.

When diabetic complications result in Uncle Lester’s blindness, he hires Alton for four days a week to drive him to his bridge club and be a cardturner in his bridge games. Though initially reluctant, Alton is intrigued by the game, and he begins to appreciate and eventually enjoy bridge. Alton calls his uncle Trapp because that’s what everyone in the bridge club calls him.

One day a girl from the Castaneda family appears at the club to play as Trapp’s partner. At 17, Toni is Trapp’s protégé and his former cardturner. Alton’s mother has told him for years that all of the Castanedas are crazy, so he scrutinizes Toni for signs of her schizophrenia. Toni is already an amazing bridge player for her age, but it is, in part, because she hears a voice telling her which cards to play. The voice belongs to her grandmother, Annabel, who died 40 years ago and who was Trapp’s perfect bridge partner.

When Toni phones Alton (because Annabel’s voice tells her to), she offers to teach him what she knows about bridge. They begin to play on their own, apart from Uncle Lester, and Alton experiences a growing attraction to Toni.
Alton travels with Trapp to a regional tournament. During the tournament, Trapp’s memory begins to fail, and he leaves in the middle of a round; Alton has to substitute. Trapp and his entourage return home. Trapp hopes to rest and recover enough to play in the upcoming national tournament. Yet five days later, he dies, and he leaves almost everything to charity.

To honor Trapp’s memory, Toni and Alton decide to play bridge at the club. Toni has heard Annabel’s voice since she was 6, and now Alton discovers that he can hear — or perceive — Trapp advising him which cards to play. Together they play not only as themselves, but also as Annabel and Lester — and they win first place. Alton begins to perceive Trapp’s voice outside of bridge club, too. Driving Toni home, he hears Trapp give directions that lead to Trapp’s house. Eventually, the teens gain access to the house, based on clues Trapp provides. As they search the house, they come to the realization that Trapp and Annabel want to play bridge at the national tournament by “channeling” Alton and Toni.

Alton and Toni arrive in Chicago for the National Pairs Tournament, sign in and play as Lester Trapp and Annabel Finnick (her maiden name). They win the championship and leave just as Lester and Annabel’s names are called to receive the trophy.

Christian Beliefs

Alton asks Uncle Lester why he doesn’t play bridge on Sundays, whether he attends church and if he believes in God.

Other Belief Systems

Alton says that most religions are about death. After trying to explain to another couple about how he and Toni won the tournament, Alton concludes that they believed him because the impossible is easier to believe than the improbable. He surmises that maybe that’s what religion is all about: “Is life just a highly improbable coincidence, or does an impossible explanation make more sense?”

The truth is that Toni and Alton play bridge by channeling Annabel and Trapp. Toni has heard Annabel’s voice since she was 6, and now Alton discovers that he can hear — or perceive — Trapp advising him which cards to play. Together they play not only as themselves, but also as Annabel and Lester. Alton begins to perceive Trapp’s voice outside of bridge club, too.

Teodora is Trapp’s New Age nurse who uses herbs and crystals. She has him doing yoga and meditations. At his memorial, she speaks of his powerful aura.

Uncle Lester, when asked if he believes in God, says he believes in a greater reality. He tells Alton that even if we perceived another reality, we wouldn’t be able to understand it. He adds that humans are like animals, only smarter; and perhaps there are more than five senses, but humans fail to perceive them. Later Trapp states that the evolution and reproduction of ideas through communication is the definition of life. He goes on to say that though one’s body will die, the idea of his person will live forever.

Cliff jokingly remarks that there is brother-sister telepathy between Alton and his sister, Leslie.

Trapp outlines for Alton his beliefs about synchronicity. He tells about a time when he was young, trying to recall a quote from a book; but he couldn’t remember the quote quite right, nor the book or its author. Later, while he searches through his bookcases and boxes hoping to find the book, Annabel phones inquiring whether he owned a copy of Cannery Row by Steinbeck. He gets a chill as he realizes that is the book for which he had been searching.

Authority Roles

Alton’s mother is controlling, manipulative and a gossip full of misinformation. She trains Alton from an early age to express unfelt love and admiration for her Uncle Lester with the aim of inheriting his wealth. Even when Alton is a teen, she tries to put words into his mouth as he talks with Uncle Lester on the phone. Alton ignores her and speaks for himself. He also knows that his mother often doesn’t get her story straight and consequently doesn’t trust everything she says. She has the audacity to ask Toni, whom she hardly knows, whether she still sees a psychiatrist and whether she’s taking medication. Alton apologizes to Toni for his mother.

Both of Alton’s parents pressure him to talk to Uncle Lester about his will and to attempt to get the family in his good graces so he will name them as beneficiaries. His mother tells him that he shouldn’t call his great uncle by his last name because it’s disrespectful. They are ungrateful when Uncle Lester buys a new car for Alton because it will increase insurance costs. Mr. and Mrs. Richards ground Alton for three months after he lies about his trip to Chicago; however, they forget about the grounding in only three weeks because they need him to drive his younger sister places.

Though Trapp is generous to Alton’s family in his will, Alton’s parents are petty and unappreciative of his gift, and they whine because other relatives inherit more because they have larger families and/or mortgages. Alton suggests that his parents have not been good money managers.

Lester Trapp is cantankerous and insensitive to the impact of his negative remarks. For example, on Alton’s first day, Trapp calls him a moron and an imbecile in front of others because he doesn’t know the proper card order. He treats Toni more gently because she is the granddaughter of his deceased perfect partner from 40 years ago. In spite of his brusque nature, he manages to impart some valuable lessons to the two teens such as mistakes being part of how one learns. Trapp is not miserly. When Alton’s car breaks down, Trapp buys him a new car because he sees the need. When Annabel’s daughter finds Trapp years after Annabel’s death, he takes her in and becomes like a father to her.

Profanity & Violence

Coarse expressions such as hell, d–n good, sucking up, take a leak, kick your a–, don’t screw this up and old fart are used infrequently. Jesus and God’s names are misused once each. When Alton’s girlfriend breaks up with him, he says he called her awful and bad names; but the book doesn’t specify what names. Alton admits that he and his friend Cliff use “descriptive” words when they converse. He thinks that these words look worse in print than when you hear them. So in recounting a conversation with Cliff, Alton uses “adverb deleted” in front of every verb Cliff says. Similarly, when Toni is upset at their bridge score, her language calls for Alton to say, “Adjective deleted.” Trapp calls Alton a moron and an imbecile in front of others.

Annabel’s wealthy and powerful husband, Henry King, 13 years her senior, begins abusing her after she becomes a valued bridge player at the White House; and President Eisenhower begins to ridicule him. King is over-controlling. He locks Annabel in the house and shouts, “I am the King. It is your duty to serve and protect the King!” and forbids her to play bridge. However, she sneaks out and continues to play. When she is Trapp’s partner at a national tournament, King sends a team of policemen to haul her off to an asylum. Trapp sustains a broken nose and three broken ribs trying to stop them from taking her away. She is held in isolation for two years, then commits suicide by ingesting a toxic substance.

Sexual Content

Adulterous relationships are inferred twice. Lester’s nurse, Teodora, is said to walk around the house half-naked. (“Which half?” Alton asks his mother.) She says it doesn’t matter because Lester is blind. Alton finds this not to be true when he visits. Alton’s mother asks him whether Teodora will share the same hotel room as Uncle Lester when they travel to an away tournament. (They share a two-room suite.) Alton decides that if Teodora is “sharing her love” with Trapp (as his mother suspects), then it is a good thing for both of them. When Alton first meets Annabel, he essentially accuses Trapp of having an affair because of the age of Annabel’s daughter. Trapp asserts that he and Annabel were never more than bridge partners. The truth is that they were in love with each other, but did not act on their feelings.

Leslie, Alton’s sister, tells him that all her friends think he’s hot. The first few times he walks past her friends, they giggle, and he checks to see if his fly is zipped. Alton and Cliff admire a girl in a pink bikini at the pool. Cliff tells Alton that he and Toni kissed a little at a party. Alton wonders whether Trapp had sex with Annabel, who was married to a senator. At Trapp’s memorial, Toni hugs Alton, and he comments that his leg touching hers as they sit next to each other distracts him from thinking about Trapp. He is somewhat excited that a possibility exists that he and Toni might have to share a hotel room at the national tournament. (They don’t.)

At various times, Teodora, Toni and another female bridge player massage Alton’s neck. Teodora does this because it’s part of who she is. Toni and the other woman do it because Alton has a stiff neck from sleeping on a hard pillow. Toni stammers and blushes over her explanation to the woman about how Alton hurt his neck while sleeping. She’s flustered that this woman might think Toni has this information because she and Alton are assumed to have slept together. Toni hugs Alton after Annabel and Trapp are announced as the winners of the National Pairs Championship, and he holds her as tightly as he can. Next they kiss, and Alton describes it as “cosmic.” They are not sure whether the kiss was between themselves or between Annabel and Trapp, but Toni comments that she likes it. They kiss again in the elevator.

Trapp pays all travel expenses for his entourage. He also pays for one of his female bridge friends. She comments on this and wonders what the neighbors will think. Teodora responds with “Ooh-la-la.”

At the memorial, one of the guests tells a story about a time when she stayed at Trapp’s apartment for a tournament. She returned to his place before he did, decided to shower, but didn’t have a towel. She ran naked into the hall to locate linens, heard him open the front door, hid in a closet, but couldn’t find anything to cover herself. So, she stepped out “in all her glory.” Alton says this is the best story he heard. Later he is troubled because he keeps imagining her naked every time he sees her at the tournament.

In a bridge lecture, a successful answer to a problem posed would get the affirmation of “Congratulations! You get to marry the prince.” When a woman correctly answers the problem and the lecturer tells her this, she replies that she would rather have the princess.

Discussion Topics

If your children have read this book or someone has read it to them, consider these discussion topics:

  • When Alton and Leslie start talking about what they’ll buy when they inherit Uncle Lester’s wealth, they rapidly move from a new computer to wanting a new house with a pool, hot tub, new car, and so on. Alton says, “That’s the trouble with money.”
  • What did he mean by this?
  • Do you agree with him?
  • Find passages in the New Testament that talk about money.
  • What is the difference between having money and loving money?

  • Alton says he feels ashamed about his father losing his job and decides not to tell Cliff.

  • Why do you think he feels shame?
  • What would you say to a friend in a similar situation to help him cope?

  • Is Cliff a good choice of friend for Alton? Why or why not?

  • How do you choose your friends?

  • Was Trapp a good influence on Alton?

  • What were his admirable traits?
  • What characteristics would you consider negative?
  • Consider one of your relatives who has influenced you.
  • What were this person’s admirable traits?
  • What characteristics would you consider negative?

  • Talk about Alton’s trip to Chicago with Toni.

  • What are some possibilities for things to have gone wrong with a trip like that?
  • How does Alton justify his deceit?
  • What does it mean to duck smoothly?
  • Outside of bridge, how is this term different from lying?
  • Do you agree with how it was used?

  • Because of misinformation from his mother, Alton asks Trapp some embarrassingly stupid questions.

  • What did you learn about gossip from this story?
  • What does the Bible say about gossip?

  • The author includes the Steinbeck quote from Cannery Row twice (see the end of Chapter 59).

  • Does this quote have any significance to the story?
  • Do you think it’s true?
  • How would you argue against it?

Additional Comments

Bridge lessons: Some basics to the mental sport of bridge are sprinkled throughout the book — a solid introduction. When the author is about to detail a concept, a gray whale icon is used to alert the reader. A reader not wanting to read Bridge details can then skip ahead to the storyline.

Materialism: Alton and Leslie dream about all the things they’ll be able to buy with their inheritance from Uncle Lester. Alton’s parents are never satisfied with what they have.

Gambling: Alton talks about losing almost $100 playing poker with a friend, using quarters.

Lying: Alton uses the country-club pool membership of a man who Cliff knows to be vacationing in New Zealand. Cliff and Alton manipulate and lie. Toni and Alton could legally be charged with breaking and entering a house under probate, even though Trapp’s voice helps them. Alton lies to his parents, telling them he is driving with Cliff to look at colleges when he really is flying to Chicago with Toni to play in the national bridge tournament. Toni uses Teodora’s name when she checks into the hotel.

Alcohol: One of Annabel’s favorites is to win the last trick of a hand with a 7 of diamonds. Known as a beer card, a player’s partner must buy them a beer. A couple invites Alton to a bar for a drink after a day at the tournament. Alton reminds them that he is only 17, so they tell him he can get a Coke.

Politics: The author has a character state that he hated presidential-hopeful Richard M. Nixon and that Nixon was good at destroying his enemies.

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