The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin, 185 pp RL 5
The first time I read Ellen Raskin's The Westing Game, I think I was in fifth grade and it bowled me over. The characters seemed so much more vivid, real and odd at the same time, and there were so many of them that I felt like I had become the member of a new family by the time I finished reading the book. When I read it again as an adult, I cried like a baby at the ending. It's that kind of book, where, as an adult, you are so happy/sad about the bittersweet nature of life that you get a little teary, or more. Much like I did at the end of Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book. I'm not sure what kids reading today will make of this book. It does feel a little dated, however it is also contemporary in that Raskin is not afraid to show her adult characters, who out number the kids in this book, in an unflattering light. In terms of being a mystery, I think it will keep kids reading. It's not as complicated, plot wise, as Blue Balliet's Chasing Vermeer, although like Chasing Vermeer, it does involve the delivery of letters that sets off an exciting chain of events that includes, tricking innocent people, manipulation and adult characters of questionable moral fiber...
Published in 1978 and winner of the 1979 Newbery Medal, The Westing Game has a great cast of characters. Under somewhat questionable circumstances, the six units in the newly built Sunset Towers are filled by the very same people who are called to the reading of the will for Sam Westing, a paper industrialist and owner of the mansion on the hill that faces Sunset Towers. One of the things that makes the characters so vivid are the various backgrounds they all have. There is a doctor, an intern, Chinese immigrants who own a fancy restaurant on the top floor of Sunset Towers, Greek immigrants who own a coffee shop on the bottom floor, a seamstress, an judge on the Appellate Division of the Wisconsin Supreme Court who is also African American, a secretary, a cleaning woman and a sixty-two year old delivery boy. As for the kids, there is a track star, a brat, a good son and a disabled son in a wheelchair with a good pair of binoculars. They are all drawn together first through their work and domiciles in the Sunset Towers and then at the reading of the will. In all, there are sixteen of them. The will suggests that Mr Westing's life has been taken and, working in teams of two that are assigned at the reading of the will, they must race to solve the mystery and claim the inheritance.
As the story progresses and the teammates begin to befriend each other, clues are revealed. It turns out that most of the people living in the Sunste Towers have a connection, some of them a very close connection, to Sam Westing in one way or another. While the mystery is the framework of the story, the ending is not a huge surprise. The heart of this story is its characters and how they change and grow over the course of the book. They all have some pretty crazy personality traits, from kicking people in the shin, to decorating and using an unneeded crutch as a means of getting attention to setting off bombs. Despite this, they never seem too far off the mark. And, because this is truly a story about people, how they interact with each other and how they connect or disconnect, the last chapter of the book, which takes place five years after the will has been read and the race has been won, is ultimately more satisfying than winning any inheritance.
Sometimes Raskin's writing style is reminiscent of EL Konigsburg, especially From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler, which was written ten years before. Both authors are brilliant at creating fully formed characters who are not your typical kid's book fodder. Or at least weren't in 1978! As an interesting aside, I recently learned that, while bemoaning the lack of good mysteries for kids, Mac Barnettand his friend and agent, Steven Malk discovered their mutual love of The Westing Game. From this discussion came the seed for what is now a truly great young adult mystery and what I hope becomes a series, The Brixton Brothers: The Case of the Case of the Mistaken Identity! I love it when there are connections like that!