I know that my dozens of readers are used to me blathering on about the gays of daytime television but this week I’m taking things in a different, more literary direction. Today I will be discussing “The Westing Game” by Ellen Raskin.
“The Westing Game” was/is/and should always be a staple of school and public libraries across the world. If your library doesn’t own at least 3 copies you should buy them yourself and insist they be added to the collection. It’s your duty as a citizen.
“The Westing Game” begins with the delivery of six letters to six chosen tenants – both families and individuals – inviting them to move into Sunset Towers, a beautiful high-rise on the shores of Lake Michigan. Never mind that it faces east and has no towers. This brand new building offers picture windows in every room, central air conditioning, and much, much more.
Here’s the kicker though. Before any of the potential tenants saw Sunset Towers their names were already written on the mailboxes in the lobby.
Among the new residents are a doctor, a judge, a secretary, and a restaurateur. There are three families, a cleaning lady, and a bizarre man who wears a leather aviator helmet all the time. One of these people isn’t supposed to be there.
The residents of Sunset Towers don’t know it yet but they are all somehow connected to industrial paper magnate Samuel Westing and they were lured to Sunset Towers in order to play The Westing Game.
A story unfolds involving a last will and testament full of clues and red herrings. There’s also a track champion, several bombs, striped candles, a nasty scar, Hoo’s on First, paper insoles, a bridal shower, kicking (so much kicking), sacrificed queens, burning hair, and Polish shorthand. I wanted this book to go on forever, but it’s so economical. It is perfect.
I think I was eleven the first time I read it. Mandy, my big sister, had a copy; the one with the fireworks money house on the cover. It was undoubtedly stamped “Catoosa Elementary School Library.” (You don’t have to return books when your mom’s the librarian.) Later I had a copy with the puzzle piece cover. The image of Uncle Sam laid out in his stars and stripes coffin was delightfully chilling.
Although “The Westing Game” was published in 1979 it was being written in 1976, a fact I didn’t know until I began writing this article. Even before I knew that I knew that there was something kind of Bicentennial-y about the book, which along with my being born in ’76 really rang my Liberty Bell.
There are fireworks throughout the book and “America the Beautiful” can be heard on practically every page.
Samuel Westing was dressed as Uncle Sam when his body was discovered lying there on an oriental rug. This brand of 1970s jingoism warms my jaded little heart.
No, I didn’t live through the Bicentennial, which my sister assured me was the biggest irritation since Prohibition, so I’m able to look back on it with the nostalgia of the uninformed. Back then people just wanted to see tall ships and wear red, white, and blue overalls; today when people wave the flag and celebrate America there’s a whiff of tea bags in the air.
In all honesty, I had to read “The Westing Game” a few times in order to really figure it out. Which tenant was the mistake? That one killed me for a while before I opened my eyes and saw that it was clearly explained in the text. I didn’t understand the rules of the Westing Game nor could I make sense of the clues. When I did figure out the clues the answers confounded me, as did the true identity of the bomber. X couldn’t have done it because Y did, but there’s no way that Y would roll over so easily. If Y did do it, why?
Although those questions are pretty much the crux of the novel, they didn’t really concern me at the time. I was too busy trying to absorb each and every one of the characters and squeeze hard with my guts until they formed a whole new me.
As a shy and somewhat traumatized child, I spent most of my time pulled apart by the twin desires. On one hand, I was desperate to make friends. I thought the best way to do it was perform my sweet rendition of “Witchdoctor,” unfortunately I was never called upon to do so. On the other hand, I was terrified of people speaking to or, God forbid, looking at me. I kept myself still and silent, like a rabbit.
I counted on my books to get me through awkward situations. They gave me an opportunity to hide my face and remain silent, which I quickly learned was the best way to keep people from approaching me. I use this skill every day and count it as one of the greatest things I ever taught myself to do.
Before I read “The Westing Game” my solid best friends were Laura Ingalls Wilder, all of the Borrowers (but especially Arrietty Clock), and Tom Fitzgerald, the Great Brain; all series books where I didn’t have to meet any new people. Any new characters coming on board would be judged how my friends and I saw fit
Then came “The Westing Game.” Reading it was like my first trip to a party thrown by a homosexual. Everyone there was totally sexy in a way I, a preteen, didn’t understand and couldn’t acknowledge even if I did. All I knew was that I wanted to live there forever because anything outside that sphere was totally beige.
At the center of it all was Turtle Wexler, a badass 13-year-old with a kite-tail braid. She kicked those who touched her hair and was a financial prodigy. But she was also insecure and had a rocky relationship with her mother. I wanted to be her and be her best friend. Together we would say what was really on our minds and deliver kicks to those deserving them. We would have beautiful hair together.
Alongside Turtle were two dreamy, nonthreatening high school boys, neither of whom was white. Theo Theodorakis, who dreamt of being a writer, was Greek. Doug Hoo, a track champion, was Chinese. I had no concept of dreamy guys of color. In my grade school, the only non-white guys were black. Doug and Theo were exotic. Turtle had a crush on Doug, while I preferred Theo, which was perfect actually since it wouldn’t interfere with our friendship.
Theo’s brother, Chris, was confined to a wheelchair due to an unnamed, yet legit-type illness. Not only was he also Greek, but he loved bird watching. Chris was the first disabled character I’d met that wasn’t there to teach me an important lesson about people with disabilities. Those lessons always culminated in the moral “…and that’s why people in wheelchairs are just like everyone else.”
“The Westing Game” freely acknowledged that Chris was not just like everyone else and didn’t make a huge deal out of things. Chris had a lot of shit going on, like spotting the limper on the Westing house lawn the night smoke began streaming from the chimney. He also held on to his half of the money even though his partner, the drippy D. Denton Deere, kept pressuring him to give it up. Good for him.
One character I loved was Grace Windsor Wexler, mother to Turtle and Angela, the beatific older child. A drunken social climber who played favorites with her kids, Grace was nothing at all like my mother. This is exactly why I wanted to be just like her when I grew up. Grace Windsor Wexler had honey-blonde hair that she would pat into place, and stationary with a deckle edge. What the hell was deckle?! I had to find out. She wore high heels and wobbled in the plush carpet. She smoked with impunity.
I’m not going to list every one of the characters and delve into how they made me feel about myself. Suffice it to say that they’re all three-dimensional, fully-rounded human beings. Far greater realized than much of the dreck produced today. I knew them right away, or I thought I did and like all good mysteries, the owls are not what they seem.
“The Westing Game” was the first grown-up book I ever read. “Grown-up” because there were adult characters who weren’t the teacher who popped up occasionally to give sage advice or the parent who did nothing but stand in the way of the youthful protagonists. The Westing adults were people too, with their own reasons for doing things. For the first time, I could imagine a world beyond school, beyond grubby kids who didn’t understand me when I said, “‘The Westing Game’ is the greatest book ever!”
“The Westing Game” was a book that I wanted to impress. I wanted to be able to hold my own with residents of Sunset Towers. I wanted to be good enough to read the book. It’s taken me over 25 years but I finally got there.
You can follow Erin Byrne on Twitter @ErinLadyByrne. There you will find lecherous messages sent to various members of the “Hollyoaks” cast.