|The Card Turner
by Louis Sachar
Delacorte Books/Random House
by Deborah Wiles
Let me make one thing clear: I’m not going to be dispassionate about
this. I agreed to be a judge, but I refuse to be judicious; I’m not going to nitpick and split hairs. If I had been given two mediocre books, I might have managed it: one can be beautifully dispassionate about mediocre books. But COUNTDOWN and THE CARDTURNER are remarkable books, and the proper response is not assessment, but appreciation. I’m going to fling objectivity out the window (let’s face it; it’s overrated) and have myself a good time.
It’s fascinating to compare COUNTDOWN with THE CARDTURNER, because they are so much alike. They are radically different in flavor, but Ms. Wiles and Mr. Sachar were forced to grapple with the same technical problem: how to incorporate great lashings of exposition into a story without losing momentum. (I like to imagine both authors in a bar, enjoying a good grouse about it.) Anyone who reads THE CARDTURNER has to pick up enough bridge to follow what happens at the card table. In COUNTDOWN, the reader must assimilate the culture of the early sixties and feel the impact of the Cuban Missile Crisis. In order to develop the background of Franny’s story, Ms. Wiles makes expert use of visual materials, conversational essays, and quotations. Mr. Sachar teaches the reader about bridge through dialogue, puzzles, and the strategic use of whales. Both authors are virtuosi, blending story and exposition as deftly as a cook creams sugar and butter together.
I was seven years old during the Cuban Missile Crisis. I remember my mother weeping with relief when the crisis ended. My grandfather built a fallout shelter in his basement, and at school, I ducked and I covered. Reading COUNTDOWN was like stepping back into my childhood. Ms. Wiles’ evocation of the sixties (Sing along with Mitch! TV dinners! Aqua-net!) is pitch-perfect.
At the beginning, COUNTDOWN seizes the reader’s attention with fifteen pages of photographs and quotations. Then Franny’s story begins: “I am eleven years old and I am invisible.” I felt a faint jolt as the book switched from the global to the personal. At first, Franny’s problems seemed trivial to me, and I wasn’t sure I was going to like her. Franny is not an idealized heroine. She’s neither sweet nor especially spirited. She’s a rule-follower and an apple-polisher; she’s a bit sneaky, and she’s sometimes mean to her sweet-tempered little brother. Small slights devastate her. She is plagued by feelings of inadequacy, envy and guilt.
As I went on reading, I came to see that the character of Franny is one of the triumphs of the novel. Franny is a real and specific little girl. As her world comes into focus, we see that her state of mind is not just rational, but inevitable. Franny mirrors the anxiety around her, and as that world becomes more chaotic, the reader comes to share Franny’s tension. As I read, I felt my stomach knot up. I found the cumulative dread of the story unsettling, powerful, and hypnotic.
I have a strong prejudice against novels written in present tense. I’m giving this one a special dispensation. By setting her historical novel in the present, Ms. Wiles made me feel that the Cuban Missile Crisis hadn’t yet been resolved. The bombs might fall; the world might end. I read deep into the night, unable to relax until the story had reached its conclusion. I came to love Franny, and I was wholly caught up in her heroic struggle to save her worthless friend.
I’d like to point out one or two other things about COUNTDOWN. One was how brilliantly Ms. Wiles conveyed life on the edge of the volcano. Franny is worried that the world will come to an end, but she’s also worried about what she’s going to wear to the Halloween party. This seemed absolutely truthful to me. I was also impressed by how Ms. Wiles conveyed the grown-ups in the story. They are mostly inadequate, each in his own way, but they are doing their shoddy best. I was particularly moved by the tender passages between Franny and her shell-shocked Uncle Otts. I was startled and impressed when Franny’s teacher, Mrs. Rodriguez, managed to console her terrified students by telling them about the culture of Cuba.
COUNTDOWN is part of a trilogy about the sixties. The novel stands alone, but it is clear that Ms. Wiles has other fish that she intends to fry: the Civil Rights movement, the Women’s Movement, and the rise of rock and roll. I look forward to watching her fry them. What Wiles is doing is big and ambitious and multi-layered and inventive. COUNTDOWN is a stupendous Book One.
Let me come clean here: I play bridge. I’m a Bridge Lady. Party bridge, not duplicate—but I’ve been known to play for nine hours at a stretch. I first shared THE CARDTURNER with my fellow bridge players. Then I shared it with adults and children who know nothing about bridge. They loved it, too.
The story gets off to a good start. Alton is a likable narrator. He is convincingly adolescent—keenly aware of his parents’ hypocrisies, and sarcastic about his own defects. When he talks about girls, he’s a wistful hound dog. Alton is the nice guy who never gets the girl. He is unconsciously and instinctively decent.
As the story continued, I began to forget that I was reading a book. Mr. Sachar’s narration is so seamless that I scarcely noticed how many balls he was juggling: Alton’s personal story, the Alton-Trapp relationship, the Annabel-Trapp back story, and, of course, bridge. Mr. Sachar also has to prepare his reader for the supernatural twist that occurs three quarters of the way through the book.
He manages this by developing Alton’s philosophical bent, by staging Alton/Trapp dialogues about synchronicity, perception and metaphysics. In the hands of a less practiced storyteller, these conversations might have been heavy going, but Sachar handled them so playfully that I never realized he was advancing the plot. I thought his characters just happened to talk about things like that.
As for the characters, they are sketchy, but dynamic. With the exception of Alton, they are rendered impressionistically, drawn with a few skillful strokes. We come to know them by seeing the relationships between them change. When Trapp died, I was surprised by how fond I had grown of him. I grieved for the unfinished relationship between Alton and his uncle. I felt some of the bewilderment one feels at a real bereavement: Wait a minute, it’s too soon.
We’re not done here.
And in fact, Mr. Sachar isn’t done. When Trapp dies, Sachar’s still got half- a-dozen balls in the air, and he’s going to keep them aloft until the story finds its proper end. At the heart of THE CARDTURNER is Trapp’s tragic back-story: An abused wife is wrongly imprisoned in a mental hospital, and commits suicide.
The man who loves her develops a heart as cold as a brick. Like the Bridge Nationals, this story is going to be played out a second time—but with a different ending: A girl who has been diagnosed schizophrenic is going to find someone who understands that she’s sane. A diffident boy is going to gain the confidence he needs to play his own cards and take a chance on love. For once, the postmortem game is the game that counts—and as the story reaches its conclusion, the tragic knot is untied, and the ghosts are laid.
And now I have to pick a winner. How does one choose between two good books? One selects a standard, I suppose, or one contrives a set of criteria.
But both the selection and the criteria are a little fishy. It’s likely that what I choose will say more about me than about the books I judged.
However. I was chosen for this Battle in order I might choose, and I am not such a coward as to bail out now. So I will make my choice—and I’m going to choose THE CARDTURNER.
My reason may seem arbitrary. But here it is. It seems to me that THE CARDTURNER is a comedy, and that real comedy is rare. I’m not talking about funny books. DIARY OF A WIMPY KID is a funny book, but it is not a comedy; the jokes (variants on you can’t win) are blue. But THE CARDTURNER seems to me to be a comedy the way A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM is a comedy.
Comedy is a celebration of human resilience. At its best, it takes the tensions and failures and tragedies of life, and transmutes them. It pulls the threads taut, mending the rift in the cloth. It draws the toxins out. And of course this is tremendously refreshing, because we are surrounded by tensions and failures and tragedies.
Both COUNTDOWN and THE CARDTURNER are immensely good. I would not like to stake my life on which is better. But THE CARDTURNER is that rare and undervalued thing, a true work of comedy, and as a child of the Atomic Age, I can’t resist it.
– Laura Amy Schlitz
And the Winner of this match is…
… THE CARDTURNER!
I mentioned that Countdown is a bit of an acquired taste for me, not being a natural character-driven reader. It was easiest for me to appreciate the documentary aspects of the novel, but I had forgotten about the characterization and character development of Franny until Laura so eloquently laid it all out. (I am so with you on the aversion to present tense narration. It’s so trendy right now, but it rarely serves the story very well. It drives me crazy that so many authors are using it! Aaargh!) On the other hand, I am very intrigued with the notion of viewing The Cardturner as a comedy. I thought Cardturner could take Barbie in the next round, but I had my doubts about Keeper. This decision has me second guessing myself, however. In fact, it’s the rare one that makes me want to return to the books for a second look. Well played, Bridge Lady.
– Commentator Jonathan Hunt