I was crazy about The Westing Game when I was a kid. I thought it was the coolest book ever. Not only is it an exceedingly clever word/puzzle mystery (though as Lizzie Skurnick rightly points out, a contemporary child just has to Google “FRUITED PURPLE WAVES FOR SEE” to solve it), it’s also just damn funny. The characters are ridiculous, yet somehow Raskin keeps you rooting for them: James Hoo (who adds “Shin” to his name to make it sound more Chinese); Grace Wexler (who adds “Windsor” to her name to make it sound more posh); shin-kicking Turtle; repressed bride-to-be-turned-sociopath-bomber Angela; Sydelle Pulaski, the crutch-painting secretary who takes shorthand in Polish; Denton Deere, the most pretentious plastic surgery intern in the world. I relished them all.
Then I got to university, and upon re-reading the book, was taken aback by how capitalist it is. My newfound pseudo-Marxist sensibilities (and what first-year college student doesn’t have those?) were offended. For those unfamiliar with the plot, Sam Westing is an immigrant-turned-industrialist, president of Westing Paper Products Corporation and the founder of its company town. Sixteen potential heirs to his estate are called to the reading of the will. They are divided into (unlikely) pairs and each given $10,000 and a set of clues. The heir who solves the mystery of Westing’s death wins the prize, which is his multi-million-dollar fortune.
[Here be spoilers]
Well, having since lost my ideals (which have gone to the same place as my ability to stay up late on Friday nights), I can’t tell if the book legitimatizes the myth of the self-made millionaire, or brilliantly sends it up. The book is rife with rah-rah American jingoism, including Fourth of July fireworks-slash-bombs and renditions of “America, the Beautiful”. Or is it? The author relies heavily on typecasting (strict Chinese dad, acerbic black female judge, precocious teen in wheelchair, etc.), but her pluralistic vision of America was pretty forward-looking for 1978.
Besides, today is [the day after] International Women’s Day, and I can celebrate the fact that Ellen Raskin’s book helped normalize the idea that a wiseass fourteen-year-old girl could win the game… and also win at the crapshoot known as capitalism. By the novel’s end, Turtle has earned a law degree and an MBA (secretly funded by a pulp and paper tycoon, but whatevs), become a stock market maven, and inherited the Westing empire. And my 10-year-old self didn’t bat an eye.
Reading Age: 9-12