November 12, 2009

The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

I'm on a bit of a YA kick right now. Maybe it's just a perverse rebellion against the Twilight series, but I feel like there's so much excellent fiction out there for young people, and much of it is getting overshadowed by the juggernaut that is vampire romance.

Strictly speaking, The Westing Game isn't really YA lit. It's a "chapter book for young readers, ages 8 -12," but much like The Graveyard Book and Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time, The Westing Game more than holds up to adult scrutiny. I remember reading it for the first time when I was about twelve and absolutely loving it, but not being able to fully follow the intricate, quick-moving plot. This time around, I not only loved it for it's quirky characters and perfect comic timing, but I also found myself completely sucked into the mystery at its heart. Seriously, I stayed up late last night because I didn't remember the final solution and I really had to know. Good stuff.

The basic premise is a kind of Who-Done-It. A paper-mogul named Sam Westing is found "dead in bed." In his will, he calls together 16 heirs to play "the Westing game." The heirs are an unlikely group which includes a 65 year old delivery boy, a religious fanatic, a 12 year old financial wizard and narcissistic housewife. They are paired with the perfect person, as one of the heirs (a 15 year old ornithologist with a degenerative disorder) notes. They each receive a set of clues and the directive to find out which of them stole Sam Westing's life. The winning pair then receives the bulk of Westing's multi-million dollar estate. But most of the heirs are not what they seem (there's a bomber, a thief, a bookie, and Sam Westing himself hiding in the mix) and the goal is to find out who is who before it's too late.

Ellen Raskin won the Newbury Award for The Westing Game in 1979, and it's a masterpiece of a mystery. But what really sets it apart, above and beyond the intricate plotting and accessible voice, is that each character undergoes some sort of transformation over the course of the book. This is quite a thing to pull off, but Raskin's hand is light, and her control of the material complete. Each of the heirs gets his or her arc without detracting from the whole - in fact, that quality of personal growth is what makes them work as a group.

The Westing Game is great fun and compulsively readable, but there's much more going on. For a literary mystery with humor and substance, I'm not sure that it can be beat - who cares if you have to go to the kid's section of the library to find it.


JimDesu said...

cute idea :)

Madeleine said...

it's pretty neat - very clever. She had great control over the material.

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