Welcome to Part 1 of August Classic Crime Read-Along, where we introduce this month’s selection. Today we’re opening conversation for our August reading of Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game. Please feel very invited to join in the conversation at any point along the way! You can check out the calendar for the full read-along schedule.
The following essay will be discussing the following fact (yes, fact):
The Westing Game is the Best Book Ever.
If you find argument with the previous statement, I can only assume you haven’t read the book. In which case, you lucky thing! You get to read it for the first time. There’s no book I’d love to read for the first time again more than The Westing Game.
As for the rest of us—everyone who doesn’t find argument with my previous statement, everyone who has read the book—well, we can always just re-(re-re-) read it again.
Before I dip into background miscellany, let me suggest that if you haven’t read it, you go grab a copy now. It will only take you a couple of hours to read—it’s a children’s book!—so in the extremely unlikely event you don’t like it, you won’t have wasted too much of your time.
A little bit about the book:
The Westing Game is a children’s novel–target reading age is middle grade, or 8-12 years, according to the Penguin website—published in 1978. The story revolves around a very strange will left by a multimillionaire named Sam Westing: the will is written in the form of a game, and the “heirs”—the 16 people summoned to the reading of the will—can only win the enormous inheritance Westing left behind by winning the game. But the rules and objectives of the game aren’t clear, and many of the heirs have only tenuous connections to Sam Westing; it’s not clear why they’ve been summoned to play.
In 192 pages, Ellen Raskin sets up and solves a complex mystery, introduces 16 eccentric, lovable, and fully realized characters, and does it all in a way that’s appropriate for the whole family.
The Westing Game won the 1979 Newbery Medal, arguably the most important fiction prize for writing for children.
(I encountered the book for the first time in 5th grade when I dorkily decided to read all the Medal winners. The Westing Game was my favorite. I still make everyone I know read it.)
Ellen Raskin died in 1984, only 5 years after her Medal. She was only 56.
When, as a 5th grader, I found out she was dead, I cried. I couldn’t believe it. Which didn’t really make sense, since she’d never been alive while I’d been aware of her. But you know how that is.
I picked The Westing Game as a read-along book this month as a birthday present to myself (and to Dan Ehrenhaft, the Soho Teen editor, who feels the same way about the book as I do). I knew it was cheating–I’d already read it, it wasn’t in chronological order like the rest of the read-along selections–but I chose it anyway.
I think it’s a great next step in the read-along for a couple reasons. First, the plot is clearly inspired by Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, which we read last month, although less sinister (unlike in Christie’s frightening little adventure, everyone doesn’t end up brutally murdered in The Westing Game, I promise). It’s a clear example of the crime genre building on its antecedents creatively, taking a classic idea and revisiting it in a new exciting way.
But also, The Westing Game is a great “formative crime” title not so much because it was formative in the development of the crime genre—it’s too recent for that–but because it’s formative reading for a lot of readers, period. Many of us read the book as children, either for fun or in Language Arts class. I read it when I was in fifth grade, then loved it so much I made my mother (a 6th grade teacher) read it. She loved it so much she introduced it into her curriculum, and has taught it to her students for the last XX years (hm, I just dated myself, didn’t I? I’m going to backspace and X out those numbers). When her students reach the end of the book, they throw a Westing Game party, where people get to be one of the characters for the day. (Everyone wants to be Sydelle Pulaski, of course, but not everyone can be!) It is a book that motivates even reluctant readers, and which has opened many minds to the joys you might find in fiction.
I read The Westing Game approximately a million times, but never thought of it as a crime novel until I read And Then There Were None for the read-along. See? I didn’t think of myself as a crime reader until recently, but apparently I’ve been a crime reader all along.
We’ll discuss the book here again in two weeks—go home and read up! I wonder if we can somehow through a blog version of a Westing Game party? I’ll let you be Sydelle Pulaski this time. I call Otis Amber.