Thursday Throwback: The Westing Game

“Today I have gathered together my nearest and dearest, my sixteen nieces and nephews, to view the body of your Uncle Sam for the last time. Tomorrow its ashes will be scattered to the four winds.
I, Samuel Westing, hereby swear that I did not die of natural causes. My life was taken from me–by one of you!”

At my youngest cousin’s recent birthday party, he mentioned to me that he had just read The Westing Game and really enjoyed it. I replied that Ellen Raskin’s book was pretty much the best ever. Another cousin overheard us and chimed in her own praise. Thinking about it on the way home, however, I realized that despite it’s being one one of my all-time favorite Newbery winners, I had only read it once. Was it really as good as I remembered? Happily, the answer is yes.

Six families, seemingly unrelated, are all pursued by a mysterious realtor to take an apartment in the prestigious, newly-built Sunset Towers in Westingtown. A few months later, sixteen of these individuals are named as heirs in Sam Westing’s will. He was the founder of the extremely successful Westing Paper Products, for which the factory was named, and earned millions of dollars, but his life was a lonely one in his later years and he had no direct descendants.

There is a catch, however. Westing’s bizarre but legal will claims that one of those same sixteen heirs was responsible for his death, and the one who figures it out will win a million dollars. The heirs are divided into pairs, each given $10,000 and five one-word clues. The participants on the surface have little in common–a high school track star, a judge, a cleaning woman, a dressmaker, a doctor, a beautiful fiancée, a precocious thirteen-year-old, named Turtle. However, they will have to put aside their differences and work together if they want to play the Westing game. Sam Westing may have seemed mad, but perhaps there is a method to it after all.

I don’t want to say anything else for fear of giving something away, but I loved the book just as much this time around. In fact, knowing the outcomes of different plot lines, I was able to pick up many of the clues scattered throughout that I would have overlooked on a first read. It might be the mathematician in me, but I absolutely adore puzzle-type plots, and even as an adult I still find this book intellectually engaging. The correct solution makes complete and total sense, but so do all the incorrect solutions that everyone else comes up with,especially given our knowledge of the characters. Raskin treats all the clues and plot elements like pieces of colored paper in a kaleidoscope, rather than red herrings to simply display and discard.

The book is written in a third-person omniscient that jumps around among all the different characters. The only element that distinguishes this as a children’s book is that Turtle receives more time than the other characters–but no more so than in, say, a Flavia de Luce mystery. Ellen Raskin also has a wonderfully ironic sense of humor. For example, at one point the elevator becomes an unofficial bulletin board, and some of the postings are just hilarious.

My first experience with Ellen Raskin was actually her Newbery Honor book, Figgs and Phantoms. I remember being underwhelmed and thinking it was pretty weird. I almost didn’t readThe Westing Game because of it. At least I am not alone; of her four main books listed on Amazon, this one had the lowest reviews, and many agreed it was bizarre. At least the other two look promising.

Fun fact: Ellen Raskin was also a graphic artist, and actually designed the first cover of A Wrinkle in Time.

Published in: on June 28, 2012 at 1:38 pm  Leave a Comment  
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