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The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

When I was in elementary school, I was in a gifted-student pull-out group called "Challenge." (This created some confusion when, in middle school, I discovered that all the other gifted programs in the district were called "enrichment" and that "challenge" sounded like "challenged" and led people to assume I was in another kind of resource room three times a week.) Amongst all our other crazy projects and assignments, part of what we did in there was read and discuss various books. I don't remember all of them we read, but we did Anne of Green Gables, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, The Giver, The Lemming, Roll of Thunder Hear my Cry, and, in fifth grade, an edited version of Macbeth. I enjoyed most of these books but the one I always wanted to read was one that my teacher skipped for us. (She liked to rotate the books in and out.) I mostly wanted to read it, I admit, because she had the students keeping track of things on note cards and they had a dedicated bulletin board to it and I was kind of jealous.

I decided to read the book myself a few years later, and it was instantly my favorite book. I bought a copy for myself and read it several times in a row. The copy got battered so I replaced it with a new one in college and read it a couple more times between then and about a year ago. Because a year ago, I was taking it home from school to reread and, when I got my bag in the house, it wasn't there. I thought I left it at school accidentally, but no. I wondered if I'd dropped it, or lost it, or something else entirely. Imagine my surprise when I found it under the back seat of my car a couple weeks ago! I purposely squirreled it away for reading on this trip, because I read fast and know the book well.

The Westing Game is about sixteen people and an eccentric millionaire. When Sam Westing dies, he calls sixteen people to his estate for the reading of his will. They range from a restaurant owner to a judge to a thirteen-year-old girl, from a bird-watcher to a dress-maker to a young bride-to-be. And one is a bomber, one is a thief, one is a bookie, and one is a mistake. No matter their titles, though, they are all told they are heirs to Westing's two-hundred-million dollar fortune and his empire of paper products as long as they can solve the mystery of his death: who among them, these sixteen near-strangers, took his life? With each of them assigned a partner and a few cryptic clues, the heirs find themselves struggling to answer Westing's question and win his high-stakes game, one he seems to be pulling the strings in, even from the grave.

The thing about The Westing Game is that it's not really a mystery. I try to explain this to people who have never read the book, to separate the "mystery" segment of the story from what it's really about, but it's hard to do without giving something away. The miracle of this book is that Westing's game isn't about winning or losing, it's what it does to the people who play. Watching the evolution of the characters is, for me, the best part of the story, because not one of them is stagnant, or honest, or under-developed. They're incredibly realistic, flawed, secretive, and just -- amazing. I had forgotten how much I loved each of them until I was reading again. Characters that seem dull at the start -- like Jake Wexler, or Madame Soo, or Dr. Deere -- end up with a weight to them.

There's just something timeless and ageless about this book. It was published in the late 70s but except for a few references and odd anachronisms, it could be a modern story. (The lack of computers gives it away, as does a description of Turtle's party dress and a few other random details.) I didn't realize it was published that long ago even now, as I reread it; I figured it was 1985 or so, at the earliest.

As many times as I read it, though, I always seem to catch more details and little quirks that make the characters more complicated and interesting. I'd never really understood a lot of Angela's issues or J.J.'s hang-ups until I read it this time, or saw how Denton changed throughout the process. Of course, I think part of it is that my understanding and sympathies have changed over the years as I've changed, but either way, I understand the characters different and better now than I did the last time I read it.

It really is my favorite book of all time.


Jul. 5th, 2010 12:29 am (UTC)

Now I want to reread, too. I haven't since, probably, junior high? Although I have seen the movie since. :X


the forest-dweller

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