A NERDY RETRO REVIEW OF ELLEN RASKIN’S THE WESTING GAME by Roberto de León
It would be hard to argue that Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game is underappreciated; it won the 1979 Newbery Medal, after all. And yet, Raskin’s masterpiece – an elaborate homage to her favorite author Agatha Christie – does not often appear on people’s top ten lists. But, to all those currently searching for a book, I implore you: go read The Westing Game. I suspect you’ll find it very much like the ending of When Harry Met Sally: you didn’t realize you loved it, but it was right there all along.
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So, why doesn’t The Westing Game get more street cred? Perhaps it falls under that special category of Newbery winners that are “excellent, but obscure” (right up there along with It’s Like This, Cat and Carry On, Mr. Bowditch). Or perhaps our nation’s obsession with Battle-Royale-Faction-Tribute-Love-Triangle fiction has rendered anything written before 2009 as “old news.”
Ironically, it’s the obscurity and downright strangeness of this novel that makes it so compelling in 2013. I have not, in all my years of teaching, met a child who hasn’t liked it. After all, who wouldn’t find the premise exciting? A spunky, young, Cordelia-esque narrator named Turtle Wexler (Favorite Hobby: kicking people in the shins) finds herself – along with 15 others – invited to a mysterious mansion. When they arrive, they’re ushered into a room only to discover that the owner of the mansion is dead (!), but he’s left behind a letter. And guess what? He’s been murdered! And the murderer? One of the 16 standing in that very room! “Now it is up to you,” the dead Mr. Westing writes. “Cast out the sinner, let the guilty rise and confess!” The one who finds the killer gets Westing’s sizeable inheritance. Clues are distributed, more shins are kicked, and slowly, one by one, the puzzle pieces are put together. Oh, and along the way, secret identities are revealed, a few bombs explode, and everybody sings America, the Beautiful.
But, beyond the action, there are three reasons that Raskin’s novel stands the test of time. First up: the compelling characters. As a vehicle for character development, there’s no other children’s novel quite so ambitious. Despite the fact that everyone’s rooting for Turtle to win the game (she reminds me a lot of Gilly Hopkins, another of my childhood faves), all told, there are 16 major characters in the novel. 16! (And a few of them are known by multiple aliases.) Ten chapters into this book and you’re still left grappling with who’s who.
But, do not despair! There’s beauty in the struggle! Deonee, a former student, hated reading. And sure enough, 15 pages into The Westing Game, she looked up at me and asked for a piece of paper.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because I need to write down who’s who. This book is confusing.”
And then she did something quite amazing: she kept reading.
There’s something magical in the dizzying, scattershot feeling of the opening chapters of this book. Something that compels you to stick with it. And once you start to piece together a sense of each character, you realize how deep they truly are. They aren’t just stereotypes or clichéd, archetypal characters; each character feels alive – like someone you knew from your past, but just can’t put your finger on where you’ve met them.
Reason number two: Ellen Raskin is a master of language. Her short, declarative style (“Sunset Towers faced east and had no towers. Strange!”) betrays the richness and complexity of the text. In The Westing Game, it’s not about what the narrator says; it’s about what’s left unsaid. Chapters end just before the moment you think they should, and you’re left imagining how the scenes play out. As an old writing mentor once told me: “When writing, write only as much as you have to, but no more. Extra words are like too much mayonnaise.” And Raskin spoons out just the right amount.
Reason number three: Raskin’s love of the Unreliable Narrator. Raskin’s world is one where nothing can be fully trusted. The mystery is built on the back of misconception and misdirection where every wink of an eye may portend some subtle clue, some dual meaning. Or not. 16 characters and 16 pieces on a chessboard…is this significant? Maybe. And that maddening feeling of not knowing who or what to trust is the reason I keep coming back to this novel year after year.
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I’ll wrap up with more from my wise and Turtle-esque student, Deonee. I remember watching the moment when she finished reading The Westing Game. Deonee, like many of the disenchanted middle schoolers I’ve taught in my day, had not finished a single chapter book for fun in her entire 11 years of life. And when she finished this one – her very first – she slowly placed the book down on the table, paused, and looked up at the windows for a moment, deep in thought.
“Mr. d?” she said, finally. “Are there…other books like this?”
After I laid out a few options, she made an interesting choice for her post-Westing Game novel. She chose And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie.
Ellen Raskin would approve, I think.
Roberto de León has been a public school teacher for the last ten years. His benchmark for a successful year is his ability to turn non-readers – like Deonee – into book lovers. He lives with his family in California.