Ellen Raskins' 'The Westing Game:' a Bookie, a Burglar, a Bomber, and a Mistake
In the spirit of the novel at hand, a mystery: Who is the only person to have illustrated the cover for a Newbery Award winner only to go on to win a Newbery Award herself?
The answer, of course, is Ellen Raskin. She illustrated the original cover for Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle In Time, which won the prestigious award, and then won it herself in 1979 for The Westing Game. It beat out only one other honor book (a slow year for children's books?), The Great Gilly Hopkins, by another week's #TBT author, Katherine Paterson.
As a prolific freelance illustrator and designer, it seemed no one expected Raskin to become an author, least of all herself. In a discussion with the University of Wisconsin, she talks about her entire process behind The Westing Game.
I know my books are a little kooky, but so are the books by most illustrators.
But after more than a decade freelance, she started writing and illustrating her own children's books. In 1979, however, she wrote The Westing Game, a madcap murder mystery, which remains the story she will be remembered by. Sadly, it was also her last book, as she died in 1984.
The Westing Game is a twisted, laugh-out-loud mystery novel centers on 16 "heirs" who are selected to live in Sunset Towers, in the shadows of the Samuel W. Westing estate. They are called to the house when the body of Mr. Westing is found, and read a rather strange will. The heirs are put into pairs, given $10,000 and four words, and told that whomever can solve the clues will win his $200 million fortune.
What makes The Westing Game so great?
As a child who read her fair share of Nancy Drew, The Westing Game gave me the opportunity to not just follow Nancy, but be Nancy. Raskin developed a plot that has all the clues you need to figure out the mystery as a reader, from the very first line — if you're paying close attention. I remember reading and rereading passages, taking notes, and acting as if Sam Westing's inheritance of $200 million was mine for the taking.
And, as a credit to Raskin, it wasn't an easy mystery to solve as a child.
The Westing Game was so unlike most of the other books my friends and I had been reading at the time. It was chock-full of a melting pot of characters.
A dressmaker, a secretary, an inventor, a doctor, a judge. And, oh yes, one was a bookie, one was a burglar, one was a bomber, and one was a mistake. Barney Northrup had rented one of the apartments to the wrong person.
In this cast of characters, what young girl didn't like the feisty Turtle Wexler? Turtle's mother Grace wanted nothing more in the world than to be a famous, admired socialite. She adores her daughter Angela, with her beauty and, well, grace. But the younger daughter Turtle? She could take or leave.
But, for us young girls, Turtle was the best. She had one braid, and if anyone touched it, she'd kick them hard in the shin. She spoke her mind and she thought outside the box, thinking the four words of her clues stood for stock market symbols. So she invested, and she made money.
Why do we still love The Westing Game?
Rereading the novel this week with no remembrance of the solution to the story, I could more quickly solve the clues, yes, but not the overall mystery. (And okay, yes, I again took notes). That's a credit to Raskin, who never talked down to her young readers — but she does celebrate them. Thirteen-year-old Turtle, who all young girls loved decades ago, ends up being maybe, just maybe, the most clever heir of all.
As an adult, some of the humor also stuck out much more to me. Denton Deere, the beautiful Angela's fiance, is often referred to as "the intern," but calls himself a doctor, doling out diagnoses to everyone he meets. Then there's Sydelle Pulaski, the loud-mouthed secretary who showboats fake illnesses for attention. These are the characters that adult readers can pick out in real life, making them all the more funny.
For a children's book it's also important to note that it's not just children as the main characters. Raskin shows impressive control over her cast of eccentric, and notably diverse, characters, not letting any fall flat. Raskin discusses her experience with characters in her talks with the University of Wisconsin and cited by Ginny Moore Kruse:
As far back as I can remember, I invented characters. My sister and I would spend weeks at a time acting out the lives of at least ten characters each . . . I was also surrounded by real people, lots of them . . . at least fifty close relatives showed up at the annual family picnic held up or down the Lake Michigan shore.
Within these characters, Raskin also includes hints of comments on class and race — something I picked up more as an adult. Her cast of characters include an Asian athlete, a black female judge, and a disabled teenager. Mr. Hoo says in comment about Westing, "The poor are crazy, the rich just eccentric."
If you loved The Westing Game, you should read...
1. And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
Sure, Agatha Christie's book is darker and less funny, but the setup is uncannily similar to The Westing Game, with mystery guests who aren't quite who they say they are. Murder on the Orient Express is another good Christie novel with a large cast of characters.
2. The Maze of Bones by Rick Riordan
If you liked playing along in The Westing Game, then Rick Riordan will really deliver with his mystery. The 39 Clues series is a multimedia adventure, offering readers playing cards with evidence and online games to play along.
3. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt
Berendt's tale is nonfiction, but it reads like a novel with a cast of eccentric characters. The Southern Gothic story begins with a murder in a grand mansion that ricochets throughout a town.
4. The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
This hardboiled crime novel will appeal to childhood readers of The Westing Game, with its many characters who double-cross and lie to each other (and themselves) throughout the story. It begins with Phillip Marlowe being called to the wealthy estate of a man who is being blackmailed, but along the way, secrets are exposed and not everything is as it seems.