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Saturday, February 27, 2010

Book Review: The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

When I was about 12, I found this book on my sister’s shelves, thought the back of it sounded quite intriguing and so I read it. I remember when I asked her if I could borrow it, she was dumbfounded. “But I have to read that for school,” she said, “for a book report.” From her tone, you could tell it was as if I’d asked if I could eat all her Brussels’ sprouts or clean her bathtub. Like Why on earth would anyone want to do that?

But the jacket copy had caught my attention. And while the book hadn’t ever shown up on my own reading lists (or if so, had been pushed aside by more intriguing titles) I am thrilled I read it. Rereading it now, I am struck by how ahead of its times it is. There is one bit that’s dated – a 20-year-old woman who’s getting married – which no one seems to think is too young – and her mother says she doesn’t need to learn to drive because she’ll always have someone to drive her around. But the majority of the book feels fairly timeless, and actually some of the comments about race (the judge) and sexism (Turtle) still seem quite pertinent. Particularly because they are subtle and by no means the focus of the story, but when they come up they’re neither ignored, nor pushed to the forefront, which struck me as unusual for the last 1970s.

Anyway, this is a fun, almost silly mystery surrounding an apartment building on Lake Michigan in Wisconsin. The town is more or less owned by Mr. Westing, who built a factory there that employs most of the townspeople. The tenants of this new building are all hand-picked, unbeknownst to them, and when Mr. Westing dies and names them all as heirs shortly after they move in, things become very interesting. Particularly when in the reading of his will he declares he has been murdered – by one of the heirs! And the heirs who solve that crime will be the ones who inherit the millions. Everyone is paired off and given clues. The characters are a motley bunch, from a 12-year-old brat to a Chinese restaurateur, to a high school track star, to a medical intern. It is quick and full of action.

Personally I was impressed, given my very lousy memory, with how much of the book had stuck with me. I recognized a couple of the important clues right away, and I remembered what the clues translated to (though I didn’t recall how that pointed to the killer). I also remembered that not everyone was who they seemed (though again the particulars hadn’t stayed with me). So I was able to keep going “a-ha!” while not losing any of the suspense. It obviously had really struck a chord to stay with me all these years. In fact, I recently recommended it to a teacher who works with 4th and 5th graders who are reluctant readers as I think it’s a perfect book to perhaps bring some kids back to the reading fold. It was a delight to reread.

This review is a part of Kid Konnection, hosted by Booking Mama, a collection of children's book-related posts over the weekend.

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