The Westing Game

by Ellen Raskin

Cover image

Publisher: Puffin
Copyright: 1978
Printing: 2004
ISBN: 0-14-240120-X
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 182

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The Westing Game starts with the opening of an apartment complex. Invitations to apply for an apartment are delivered to carefully selected but apparently unrelated families; all of them accept, leaving the building an eclectic mix of personalities. Shortly thereafter, in a spooky abandoned mansion next door, one of the kids discovers the body of Mr. Westing, the founder of the town's paper empire. Much to their surprise, nearly everyone living in the apartment is invited to the reading of the will, which sets off a bizarre and complex game for the Westing fortune.

This book is targetted at young adult with some of the expected effects on cast and character. There are four children (and one young lady) who live in the building and much of the action follows them. Some of the characterizations are a bit over the top in the quirky way one sometimes sees in books aimed for younger readers, where everything is a bit larger than life (the evil mother and the intern, in particular, are rather one-dimensional). Despite that, it's a readable and enjoyable adult story as well. It's a detective story of sorts, but mostly it's a puzzle story and the puzzles are wonderfully twisty.

The game starts when the odd and flamboyant will, after an extended introduction (which turns out to be laden with multiple levels of clues), pairs all the complex inhabitants off into pairs and gives them each five words. Although the clue points them at cooperation, only one of the pairs tries that route; the rest attempt to extract meaning from a small part of the puzzle with often hilarious results. In the process, we're introduced to all of the characters, we see them alone and in combination, odd alliances form, and we discover more and more about their lives and backgrounds.

The puzzle is a worthy challenge in its own right, but Raskin also uses it like a party game to get her characters circulating, force them to interact, and dig up pieces of their personalities and past. As she does, she jumps from character to character, developing the story from different viewpoints and adding more depth to the characters. I was impressed by her skill; at the start, only a few characters were interesting and several seemed quite boring, but nearly everyone has some hidden aspect or twist and many have more than one. The characters open and blossom under the challenges of the story, a sudden snow storm that traps many of them in the building, a strange bomber who starts harmless explosions in both of the complex's restaurants, and a mysterious thief. The story is like a jigsaw puzzle to which Raskin keeps adding more pieces just as one section is assembled, and the new pieces often dramatically change the shape of what came before.

By the climax of the story, I cared more about the characters than I ever expected to. I also thought I'd figured out the basic puzzle, but had completely forgotten a complication that Raskin clearly introduced at the beginning of the game that changes everything the characters had figured out. From there to the end of the book the reader is treated to a flurry of interlocking, unfolding puzzles that rewrite the game they've all been playing. By the conclusion, only one of the characters knows the real puzzle and real solution; the rest are stopped (and entirely content) with a false conclusion. And throughout the book, everything fits together sensibly; Raskin never (that I noticed) cheats or invalidates earlier parts of the story. It's an impressive balancing act that makes for a thoroughly enjoyable reading experience.

This book won the Newberry Award for children's literature and you'll probably find it in the children's or young adult section of a bookstore. It's seeking out. It's enjoyable as a pure character story even if the puzzles aren't of interest; the puzzles add the feeling of a complex detective story with multiple false clues to the excellent character interactions. There's even a surprising amount of emotional depth for a book of this sort, enough to give the comprehensive happy ending emotional weight. Set aside some time to read it, though, since once you start it you won't want to put it down.

Update: I re-read this book six years after I first read and reviewed it, and was surprised to find that it didn't hold up on re-reading. Maybe my tastes have changed, maybe I wasn't in the right mood for it, or maybe it wasn't quite as good as I originally remembered. I've knocked a point off of my original rating due to an underwhelming re-reading experience.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2006-10-15

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21