My daughters have to write a book report every month, with a different genre of book each time. (So far they’ve done fiction, fantasy, biography, historical fiction, non-fiction, and a few others.) This month’s theme is mystery, and both girls decided to read one of my all-time favorite books from growing up: The Westing Game, by Ellen Raskin. I decided to re-read it – thirty+ years later – to see if it was what I remembered and how it has held up.
For those of you who haven’t heard of this Newbery Award winner, The Westing Game opens on a cold fall day in Milwaukee, WI. Sixteen people have been hand-picked to move into a luxury apartment building next to an old, abandoned estate owned by a paper company magnate, Sam Westing. They are called to the mansion for the reading of the Westing’s will, as he has recently died. The will lays forth the rules of a game that these sixteen heirs are to play: teams of two are each given five clues, and are expected to use those clues to figure out the answer. But what is the answer – who murdered Samuel Westing? Or is there another mystery for them to uncover? Westing’s estate is on the line, but no one really knows how to inherit it.
The story takes a number of twists and turns, mostly centering around the odd pairings of the teams and the secrets that several of them are hiding. When a series of homemade bombs start going off in the apartment building, rattling everyone, the stakes get higher and the group more suspicious of each other. Will they work together to pool their clues and find out what the eccentric old man meant? Ultimately, the mystery is solved, but the answers aren’t what anyone expects – and the “winner” remains a secret.
I really enjoyed reading The Westing Game again. There were a lot of things that I thought I understood as a kid, but that in retrospect I never truly did, even after my many, many readings of the book. There are also loose ends and some really implausible plot points that are still pretty nebulous reading it now. But it’s a really fun book, and the characters are truly memorable. Now that I’ve finished it, I will sit down with my daughters and see how much they understood. Judging by the conversations I overhead between them when they were reading it, I think they got quite a bit of it.
The book is definitely dated: one character’s late daughter is described as “retarded” and “Mongoloid”; another character’s family was unhappy that she had married a Jew; one young woman drops out of college after a year to get married; and one character, a federal judge, wears an African printed robe to a party and someone comments on her looking “ethnic”. The bombings are relatively innocent in the book – a far cry from today’s headlines, but unsettling nonetheless. But considering I first read this in the late 70s, it has held up pretty well.
I would recommend The Westing Game for pretty advanced grade school readers, given the complexity of the plot and the fact that not everything gets wrapped up that neatly. There are some deaths in the end (which takes place many years after the actual Westing game), which are sad. But overall, The Westing Game is a ton of fun and one of the best books I read as a kid.