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Old School Wednesdays Readalong: The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

Old School Wednesdays is a weekly Book Smuggler feature. We came up with the idea towards the end of 2012, when both Ana and Thea were feeling exhausted from the never-ending inundation of New and Shiny (and often over-hyped) books. What better way to snap out of a reading fugue than to take a mini-vacation into the past?

Old School Wednesdays Final

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In March 2013, we asked YOU for your favorite old school suggestions – and the response was so overwhelmingly awesome, we decided to compile a goodreads shelf, an ongoing database, AND a monthly readalong/book club.

This month’s OSW Readalong pick is The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin.

For every readalong book, we’ll structure this a little bit differently than our usual Joint Review fare – first, we’ll give our (brief!) opinions regarding the book, then we’ll tackle some discussion questions. Finally, we’ll ask YOU to join in.

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Westing GameTitle: The Westing Game

Author: Ellen Raskin

Genre: Mystery, Young Adult/Middle Grade

Publisher: Puffin
Publication date: First published 1978
Paperback: 182 pages

When an eccentric millionaire dies mysteriously, sixteen very unlikely people are gathered together for the reading of the will…and what a will it is!

Stand alone or series: Stand alone novel

How did we get this book: Bought

Format (e- or p-): Ebook & Print Book

REVIEW & DISCUSSION

Ana’s Take: Considering the cries of happiness we heard when The Westing Game was chosen for the readalong, I was expecting it to be at least, a very good book. But it kind of blew my mind away. A book that is a puzzle and a puzzle that is really, about people, and only works if you pay careful attention to the smallest of the details. I loved the mystery and the way the narrative was build but I loved above all, how this is a character book and a story of personhood and identity and I loved the way that each and every character has a memorable arc or at least a memorable moment. The more I think about it, the more I love it. Bonus point for featuring what I can only consider one of THE best children protagonists of all time: the one and only Turtle Wexler.

Thea’s Take: I had no idea what to expect when The Westing Game was voted this month’s readalong pick – I’ve heard of this book before, I know it has won the Newbery Award, and I’ve seen it in the middle grade section of my local bookstore. Beyond that? No expectations whatsoever. When I started this book, I was completely surprised by the tone of the novel, the complexity of the mystery, and the awesomeness of the characters. In fact, as Ana and I have been discussing, we were both taken aback because if this book was published today… well, I’m not entirely sure it would be marketed or placed in the MG section. It’s not that the content or writing is advanced, but rather the style feels incongruous with current MG and more in-tune with the literary mystery market. Of course, this opens up plenty of thought-provoking questions…but I’m getting ahead of myself.

In short summation: I very much enjoyed The Westing Game very much, it surprised me in the best way, and I am so glad I read it.

Discussion Questions:

The Westing Game is an elaborately constructed mystery, in which sixteen guests are first cleverly talked into leasing spaces in a particular, peculiar apartment building, then are invited as heirs to the Westing fortune – provided they can correctly answer the challenge put forward in Westing’s will. Let’s talk specifically about mystery/game elements. Did the mystery execution work for you? Why or why not?

Ana: Yes, it did, but maybe not for obvious reasons. Right at the beginning of the book we are regaled by the author with this tasty morsel of foreshadowing about the people who will take part on the game:

They were mothers and fathers and children. A dressmaker, a secretary, an inventor, a doctor, a judge. And, oh yes, one was a bookie, one was a burglar, one was a bomber, and one was a mistake. Barney Northrup had rented one of the apartments to the wrong person.

This to me inevitably does two things. 1) it sets the tone of the novel: an often playful tone that disguises really thought-provoking, darker topics. 2) makes the reader hyper aware of every single dew tail in order to guess who is who.

The thing is though, the “game” is not the expected “game of mystery”. I interpreted it as Westing’s forced machination to change the lives of the people he chose. In that sense, although there is an “end” and a “goal” and a “winner” to the game, it is the getting there that truly matters to the story and the getting there involves characters’ self-awareness, change and agency. So yes, the execution really worked for me twofold: as a clever mystery in itself and as propeller to fantastic character development.

One of my absolutely favourite thing about the book is how the way that most characters self-identified changed from the start to the end of the book. Like for example Theo, who saw himself as “brother” then as “writer”. Above all, I loved Angela’s arc which went from self-identifying as “none” to then as “person” and what a giant leap that was.

Thea: It’s an interesting question – and I’m of two minds when it comes to the mystery, or the “game.” First, the obvious: the mystery is complex, misleading, and (when it actually comes down to the mystery) wonderfully executed. At the start of the book, the mysterious and recently deceased Mr. Westing invites sixteen individuals into his home and has his will read aloud by a (rather green) lawyer. In his will, Westing lays down the gauntlet – he states that one of the people in the room is worthy to be his heir; at the same time, the will states that his life was taken by one of the people in the room. The heirs are paired off, per the will’s instructions, and given a check for $10,000 as well as a random assortment of unique clues. The brilliance of this initial parlor scene is the fact that Westing’s will is actually quite vague and suggestive and not at all how his heirs initially interpret it. The heirs think they must correctly unmask the identity of a murderer, they scramble to find hidden meaning in their clues, hire private investigators, and more. It’s really quite a gleefully misleading trip!

On the negative side, the characters fixate on the strangest combinations/splices of words and clues left behind by Westing (some of these mental contortions are utterly ridiculous), and so much of the book isn’t actually about (or even depend on) the mystery. To be fair, and to Ana’s point, perhaps that’s not really the purpose of the book – The Westing Game is a book about sixteen different characters, facing their own different stresses and choices and reforming their senses of self along the way. And for the most part, these stories and characters are developed, compelling, and memorable.

(PS – I love the Turtle, too!)

Let’s talk writing. Did the style work for you? Was the book dated in any significant (or detracting) way?

Ana: Yes, the style really worked for me and I found myself deeply immersed in the book, quite comfortably reading it with unmitigated pleasure. It did, perhaps felt a bit old-fashioned but not extremely dated? I think the only thing that possibly dates the book is the particular storylines relating to female characters and their agency as well as J.J. Ford, the African-American Judge (the first elected Judge in that state if I am not mistaken) but not, I feel, to its detriment. Rather to the contrary. Considering the amount of awesome female characters, considering how powerful a character JJ Ford was and the amazing treatment to the one disabled character in the novel, I’d actually consider this novel advanced in terms of themes.

Thea: The style, for me, was unexpectedly playful – especially considering how suckered in I was by the so-called “murder mystery” – but I think that it works beautifully for the book. There’s a cheerfulness, a positiveness to the narrative and it’s clear that Raskin, like her mysterious Westing benefactor, has a great deal of affection for all of her characters.

As to the question of datedness, well, there’s the rub.1 There were a few anachronistic things that jumped out at me (though these weren’t all bad) – the stock market trades in person by broker, the lack of information at one’s fingertips (imagine, not having the internet to do research!). More importantly, as Ana says, the book puts into context the expectations of women in 1978. That is, the expectation that women are to be married at 20 years old, start (or move in with) a family, and do not go to school because of the prohibitive prices.2 I think the book does a phenomenal job of dispelling these expectations – Judge Ford is an African American female judge, Ivy League educated and highly reputed in her field. Angela is a beautiful young woman with no identity other than her status as a bride-to-be, but rebels against this insidious label in unexpected ways. Of course, there’s the Turtle, too, who is anything but complacent.

While I do agree that the book is progressive, especially in context of its publication date, there was one character in particular whose portrayal frustrated me – Madame Hoo, the Chinese wife of the older Mr. Hoo. Madame Hoo speaks no English, has basically no voice (not even an internal one) until the end of the book, and is revealed as a kleptomaniac who is obsessed in a very childlike way with…the splendor of a Mickey Mouse clock. NO. On the positive side, by book’s end, Madame Hoo becomes a successful business woman that helps manage her husband’s budding invention distribution, and isn’t forced to dress in stereotypical, revealing “Chinese” garb. That said… is this enough to salvage the treatment of the character? In my mind, not really. (Also a little frustrating: all of the women, except for Judge Ford, end up getting married and finding their happily ever afters years after the game’s conclusion. Not to mention the entire premise of the book, which I’ll get to later.)

How about the characters? The Westing Game features a sixteen (well, seventeen or more, depending on how you’re counting) person cast. Did the ensemble cast work? Did it fail? Who were your favorite characters?

Ana: TURTLE WEXLER.*builds altar to new favourite female character*. I mean, what delightful, fun, complex protagonist is she?

Other than that, yes, I think the ensemble cast works and it has to for the story to truly work. It is when they start to fully interact with their clues together that things start moving. But beyond that though, I loved the small clusters of friendship that formed between each pair of heirs. I loved JJ Ford and Angela Wexler SO MUCH and the latter’s moving relationship Sydelle (as well as Sydelle’s own personal issues). I loved the bond between Turtle and Angela and between Turtle and Flora as well. Basically Turtle and everybody ok? And all the female characters.

As for Westing himself, I am curious to see how you all interpret this character and his motivations. Do we see him as an eccentric mastermind with good intentions at heart? Or a cunning manipulator that is more interested in his own fun and plays this really messed-up game – does it matter that it was ultimately for the better?

Thea: I second the love for Turtle! So much love for Turtle! And her shin kicking! And her cavity remedies, and her long ponytil, her stock speculation, and her overall badassery. I liken the cast of The Westing Game to one of my favorite comedy films, Clue (yes, the movie based on the board game – which also happens to be one of the most hilarious, satirical comedies EVER). Everyone seems a bit caricaturish until the story actually takes off, and we learn more about Westing’s heirs. That said, all characters aren’t created equally – the Wexlers, Judge Ford, Sydelle Pulaski, and Sandy get the lion’s share of the development and attention, while other characters remain of the stock variety. (Certain members of the Hoo and the Theodorakis families, for example.)

That said, overall? I was quite pleased with the breadth and depth of the cast.

To Ana’s question about the elusive Mr. Westing – well, more on that below.

What is your favorite thing from this book? What weren’t you enthusiastic about?

Ana: My first impulse is to say that my favourite thing about it is Turtle Wexler. But actually, my favourite thing about the book is how the gender roles were examined and the powerful construction of female identity in the story. I’d call this a feminist work.

I love that the cleverest person in the book is a girl and that she loves economics and finance and puzzles. And I love how she grows up to be this super awesome person. I loved Angela and JJ Ford and Flora and even, Mrs Wexler. I loved that to some extent or another they were all questioning their role in the world as women.

I am not sure I was enthusiastic about Sam Westing’s motivations and how they are ultimately presented in the story. I am also not entirely sure how I feel about Madame Hoo’s portrayal although I did appreciate how in the end she had not only learnt English but also taken over the family business.

Thea: I, too, love the character arcs in this book, particularly for the female characters Judge Ford, Turtle, and Angela Wexler. That said, I was not crazy about the way other characters were portrayed (Madame Hoo, looking at you), and the actual overall impetus behind the story itself, which brings me back to Ana’s point about the messed up-ness of Westing’s game. His will, his game, is a manipulative, self-serving, terrible thing to put his friends and family through. At the end of the day, Westing’s little competition does end up bettering the lives of his heirs, but the fact that an old, rich, white dude is pulling the strings and making all of these people dance to win his fortune? It rubs me the wrong way – especially considering the fact that he is portrayed by the book’s end to be a generous, highly intelligent, benevolent paternal figure.

Saving the best for last: let’s talk about modern interpretation and audience positioning. The Westing Game was originally published in 1978 as a children’s book. If The Westing Game been written and marketed today, do you think the book would have been positioned differently? Why?

Ana: Ok so this is the moment of truth. I was surprised that this was published as a children’s book. I’ve been thinking about this non-stop since reading the book, trying to critically examine my own reaction to it. And I want to know WHY did I feel surprised considering how I see myself as a champion for children’s books, and how I am constantly saying that children’s literature should not be written down, and that it should invite complexity – which is exactly what this book does. Have I been somehow conditioned to listen to the folks that call for less darkness, who bemoan too complex stories and who think that pandering and writing down is what children’s literature should be all about? Please say it isn’t soooooooooooo.

That said, I suspect that should this have been published today, it would not have been categorised as a children’s book. I don’t know if it is the tone, or maybe the fact that the vast majority of the characters are adults. Perhaps, that latter fact is in my mind, what would have tipped the scale toward a non-children categorisation these days? Obviously I can not know with any certainty and this is nothing but speculation. Curious to see what you guys think.

Thea: Like Ana, I was surprised at The Westing Game‘s classification as a children’s book. This reaction doesn’t stem from notions of advanced vocabulary or so-called “mature” material (the syntax isn’t particularly complicated, either). Like Ana, I firmly believe that NOTHING is off limits, too mature, or outside the scope of children’s literature, and that some of the most challenging and resonant books I’ve ever read are of the MG/YA variety. In the case of The Westing Game, my reaction (I think) comes more from a stylistic perspective. This book reads and feels very much like a literary fiction title (in the vein of Flavia de Luce, for example) and from a pure marketing and positioning perspective, had this novel been published today I expect a publisher might try to push it as such.

But… that’s just me. I’m definitely curious to hear other opinions!

Rating:

Ana: I was going to go with an 8 but after writing this review and thinking about all the awesome things about the book, I think this is a 9.

Thea: 7 – Very, Very Good and leaning towards an 8.

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Now over to you! Please feel free to engage with the questions (and our answers), come up with your own talking points, and/or leave links to your reviews!

  1. To quote Shakespeare, which would please Turtle.
  2. ON THAT NOTE did anyone else’s eyes BOGGLE at the cost of a college education per The Westing Game? $10,000?! HAH! (That’s a sad laugh – my student loans are so jealous.)

11 Comments

  • Rashika
    November 27, 2013 at 12:21 pm

    I read The Westing Game back in middle school and it was one of the best things I had ever read. I am sure if I re-read it nothing could change that opinion. It has a wonderful mystery and keeps you guessing till the end. I remember how much the ending surprised me. I had definitely not seen that one coming. Reading your reactions makes me want to re-read it.
    I am glad you enjoyed it! 🙂

  • alittlebriton
    November 27, 2013 at 12:22 pm

    I loved this book as an 11 year old and I still love it today. I think it’s a great books for MG kids as they are beginning to stretch their intelligence and look over the horizon at what kind of adult they might be and I think this book taps directly into that. The 16 lives are all about choices made, and they really spoke to me as a kid when trying to figure out the rest of my life.

    As well as being awesomely fun and funny, because TURTLE.

  • Alan Finn
    November 27, 2013 at 12:30 pm

    THE WESTING GAME was a favorite of mine in sixth grade. After it, so-called “kids books” just didn’t do it for me, so I jumped straight to Agatha Christie. But reading your thoughts on it, I think I need to go back and re-read it after all these years.

  • Jennifer @ A Librarian's Library
    November 27, 2013 at 2:29 pm

    I had never read this as a child, so I was EXTREMELY excited to see it voted as the readalong for this month. Overall, I really liked this book. It was very different from what I expected it to be, but in a [mostly] good way! I do not think I have ever read a classic mystery novel, either (nope, I have not read Agatha yet), and I am happy to say that I enjoyed it immensely.

    Here is a link to my review. I used your discussion questions to drive my review of this novel and that was a really helpful way to allow me to collect my thoughts.

    http://alibrarianslibrary.wordpress.com/2013/11/27/book-review-the-westing-game/

  • Sophie
    November 27, 2013 at 2:36 pm

    The Westing Game was definitely one of my favorites, partly because my mom and I read it together (and listened to the audio version too) and got into long discussions about it. With each re-read, I learned something new – there were so many details that just blew my mind every time! Like Alan, I “jumped” to adult mystery novels from there, so I think The Westing Game is a good transition book for young readers. My younger self did relate to Turtle very well, and I aspired to be as clever and strong-willed as she was. (And funny that Thea brought up Flavia de Luce, because that’s on my to-read list!)

  • hapax
    November 27, 2013 at 3:09 pm

    I love love love THE WESTING GAME — it’s one of the very few books I re-read every few years or so, mostly for the reasons you describe so beautifully.

    It’s interesting that you ask “Is it really a children’s book?” because that’s something I found myself asking about another OSW book, ARCHER’S GOON. The two share a lot in common, I think; a twisty, recursive puzzle of a plot, a sense of playfulness over darker issues, an emphasis on identity, the importance of sibling relationships, and the fact that so many of the characters were adults. (Also, I just realized how much Awful and the Turtle have in common!)

    But in the end, I would say that “Yes, these are children’s books, because the major questions they ask are preoccupations of older children and younger teens: Who am I? Who do I want to be? And how do I get from the first to the second?”

    But these are not questions important *only* to children; and the fact that the books address these questions in smart, thoughtful, witty, and never-condescending ways is what makes them enjoyable for adults as well.

  • Beth
    November 27, 2013 at 4:49 pm

    I adored this book when I first read it (I think I was ten years old) – and I still think it’s wonderful today. Ultimately I think it would be considered a children’s book, though, because centers around a child’s story. That it’s also a great read for adults doesn’t take away from its classification as a children’s book. (I think all great children’s books are great books for adults, too. They’re shelved as children’s because they’re appropriate for everyone.)

  • Dan
    November 29, 2013 at 1:34 am

    The Westing Game is one of my all-time favorites, too. I think I first read it when I was about 10, loved it then, and reread it regularly. Raskin’s other books are a lot of fun, too. I’m particularly fond of The Mysterious Dissapearance of Leon (I Mean Noel) which is also a mystery with language as a central part of the solution, but much funnier and not trying to be realistic.
    A few thoughts about some of the things you bring up. One thing that strikes me about the ending is that even though most of the women end up married at the end, in almost every case, the marriage ends up as one where the woman has a clear work-based identity independent from her husband. It’s most notable in the case of Angela and Denton, where they end up marrying only after Angela is able to go back to college and go to medical school herself. Even Grace becomes a successful restaurant owner, arguably more successful than her husband (Turtle is definitely more successful than Theo).
    Madame Hoo is definitely a problematic character. I think that what Raskin was trying to do was to give us another female character whose surface appearance didn’t match up with her inner reality, and who felt trapped in a role she didn’t want. She wasn’t a kleptomaniac-she was stealing things to be able to go back to China because she was so unhappy. We do get occasional glimpses into her thoughts (her unhappiness in the cheongsam, for example), and Grace provides a good picture of how others misjudge her. I suspect part of her arc was supposed to be Jake trying to interact with her as a person, not a thing (continuing the pattern of everybody getting the partner that they needed). That said, we don’t get enough of her own voice for that to actually be successful. We see the stereotypical surface, but not enough of the actual reality to counteract that.
    I also agree that there is some question about how to read Westing. People do accuse him of playing some nasty games, and his treatment of Crow is pretty awful. The sense of her as the sacrificed queen reinforces the picture of Westing as cold, calculating chess player. But there’s also the Westing we see through Turtle’s eyes, the warm, friendly guy. He did pair each heir with the partner they most needed. It seems like the book ends up endorsing the Westing-as-nice-guy reading, but the other side is definitely there too.

    Sorry for going on so long, but it’s a remarkably rich book.

  • Kate Y.
    November 30, 2013 at 10:05 pm

    I love this book! I have really enjoyed reading your post and the comments – it has been some years since my last reread, and I think it’s time for another! The only other one of Ellen Raskin’s books I managed to read was The Mysterious Dissapearance of Leon (I Mean Noel), which I also loved – hilarious and screwball.

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