The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin, 185 pp, RL 5
I originally reviewed Newbery Medal winner, The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin early in 2009, a few months after I started this blog. It is a childhood favorite of mine and one of the rare books I have read more than once as an adult and, after a recent rereading, I decided to rewrite my original review and hopefully inspire more readers to give it a try. I couldn't help reminiscing about this book, its history and how kids struggle with it, and my thoughts are at the end of this review. But first, The Westing Game!
Raskin's novel, published in 1978, is a rarity among children's books because, out of a large cast of characters, there is only one true child in the story, Turtle (Tabitha-Ruth-Alice) Wexler. Yes, there are two high school seniors and a fifteen-year-old boy who, due to a serious illness, is homebound and confined to a wheelchair. The other twelve main characters are all adults - so uncommon in an age when many books rely on deceased or divorced parents for a scenario in which the child protagonist can have reasonably extended freedoms. Raskin solved this dilemma by moving all of her characters into the same building and setting most of the story there. Raskin begins her book, "The sun sets in the west (just about everyone knows that), but Sunset Towers faced east. Strange!" There weren't actually any towers at Sunset Towers either. Nevertheless, on the Fourth of July, a sixty-two-year-old delivery boy pedaled around town passing out letters to the "chosen tenants-to-be." The letters were signed, Barney Northrup, but there was no such person as Barney Northrup.
The first page of the book and already Raskin is slinging clues like a short order cook during the lunch rush. Will young readers pick up on these clues? Are they even supposed to? While The Westing Game is most definitely a mystery, I don't think that Raskin or Sam Westing expected readers to piece together the clues. What I take away from The Westing Game every time I read it is the poignancy of the relationships between the characters and the wonderful way that they are masterfully inserted into each others's lives. Barney Northrup's offer is too good to pass up and soon enough the building is filled by people Sam Westing names as his heirs. Dr. Wexler, the podiatrist, has an office on the ground floor along with the Theodorakis's coffee shop. Flora Baumbach, the retired dress maker, and the Theodorakis family live on the second floor, the Wexlers and Sydelle Pulaski take up the third, the Shin family and judge J.J. Ford are on the fourth and Shin Hoo's Restaurant is on the top floor. With a deft hand, Raskin populates her novel, and the Sunset Towers, with an impressive range of people, all with secrets and secret connections that come to light over the course of the story. Add to this Otis Amber, the aged, seemingly daft, delivery "boy," Berthe Erica Crow, maid, religious woman, and soup kitchen volunteer, and Sandy McSouthers, the older doorman and former boxer who has had more than a few hard knocks in his life, and you have the list of heirs in line to inherit the fortune of the self-made patriot and lover of costumes, Samuel Westing. Westing is the owner of the mansion on the hill that overlooks the Sunset Towers, a mansion that serves as the stage for the intricate race to find his murderer and win his fortune.
Raskin spends the bulk of the novel connecting her characters and having their secrets gradually come to light as they frantically search for clues that will make sense of the four small pieces of Westing Paper Towels that have their clues typed on them and win them the inheritance. The shift from the fast-paced search for a murderer to the final, short chapters of the book can be considered abrupt, especially if readers have not been making connections all along, and maybe this is where some readers are lost? For me, it is the perfect way to draw this story to an end, especially as Raskin is generous enough to give readers not one but three chapters of epilogues that cover decades. The first wraps up the story lines of the heirs in the days after the conclusion with an unexpected wedding. The second, titled, "Five Years Pass," revisits the characters, Turtle now eighteen and a sophomore in college. The final chapter, titled, "The End?" finds Turtle well into her adulthood, saying a tearful goodbye to a very important person in her life. Even now, rereading that chapter, I get choked up. Even now, thirty-six years later, The Westing Game exhibits every quality that I think makes a Newbery winner, as well as those that denote a classic. Raskin's characters, dated by a small handful of social norms of the time, are timeless in their humanity.
The Westing Game, A Personal Reflection
The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin won the Newbery Medal in 1979, which was probably right around when I read it for the first time. Every time I review one of a paltry handful of childhood favorites of mine, I feel compelled to point out how the world of children's books was infinitely smaller when I was a young book worm, compared to now. I have no idea how this book made it into my hands, but it stuck with me. About fifteen years ago when I started a Newbery Book Club at the bookstore where I work, I was fortunate to have a group of smart, spirited girls who were voracious readers. I reread The Westing Game, devouring and savoring it, marveling at Ellen Raskin's gift as a writer. The girls, however, struggled with The Westing Game and were not captivated by it as I was when I was their age. I could never figure out why but, as the years passed, I noticed that, while it was always in stock on the shelf of Newbery winning titles at the bookstore where I work, it was rarely purchased and almost never assigned for class reading the way so many other Newbery winners are.
Happily, I was having a rapid fire favorite book discussion with an eleven-year-old friend recently who cited The Westing Game as an amazing book. I was so excited to hear that it was still being read - in fact, her friend's teacher planned a whole lesson that included role playing the characters - that I decided to read it yet again and write a review, hopefully attracting new readers to this wonderful book. I also did a bit of research on Ellen Raskin herself. Raskin trained as a graphic artist and designed the cover for the original edition of A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L'Engle, another important book from my childhood. I have no doubt that Raskin is the only Newbery winner who has designed a Newbery winning book cover - two if you count the cover for The Westing Game, which she also created. Raskin also illustrated the most popular edition of Dylan Thomas's classic, A Child's Christmas in Wales. Raskin has been quoted as saying, "I'm not sure I'm really a writer as such. I write as an illustrator."
Born in 1928 in Milwaukee, WI, Raskin published her first of twelve picture books that she authored and illustrated, Nothing Ever Happens on My Block, in 1966. The Westing Game was the fourth and final middle grade novel she wrote. In a fantastic post on the blog Daughter Number Three, authored unnamed, published in 2009, I learned that Raskin began The Westing Game as in 1976 as a Bicentennial story, setting it in Sheboygan and modeling Sam Westing on "Old Man Kohler," owner of the Kohler Company that dominated the town. When she was deep into writing the book, Howard Hughes died and the squabbles over his will further influenced Raskin. I also learned that, as an artist, Raskin kept a "swipe file," a collection of images that illustrators kept on hand for reference in the days before the internet. Raskin even referred to her file when creating characters for her written work! Raskin insisted that the Cooperative Children's Book Center at her alma mater, the University of Wisconsin, accept the donation of her papers (they were not equipped at the time to host archives of an author's work) and it is here that you can see her working notes for The Westing Game, including the inspirations for Turtle and Angela Wexler, below!
In addition to an audio interview you can listen to, you can see Raskin's design for the book itself here! I remember seeking out Raskin's four other books as a kid. They didn't really capture me the way The Westing Game did. Nevertheless, writing this review and researching the life of Ellen Raskin and her writing and illustrating process has been a great experience. Sadly, Raskin, who married Dennis Flanagan, the editor of Scientific American, in 1965, died in 1984 due to complications from a connective-tissue disease.
The many iterations of The Westing Game book cover...
Source: My mom's hardcover classroom copy from when she was a teacher, which looks exactly like the first image, but with the Newbery Medal.