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?
Logo designed by the wonderful KMont
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.
Title: The Westing Game
Author: Ellen Raskin
Genre: Mystery, Young Adult/Middle Grade
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.
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!
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.
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!