As a child, this book enthralled me. The characters were quirky. The puzzle was intriguing. The suspense was high enough to keep me turning the pages,As a child, this book enthralled me. The characters were quirky. The puzzle was intriguing. The suspense was high enough to keep me turning the pages, but not so high that it gave me nightmares.
As an adult, I found it contrived, blatant, and lacking in any of the charm that I remembered.
Did someone rewrite the new edition? Did my book get swapped when I wasn’t looking? I mean, it must have been better than this in the 70s—it won a Newberry Award. Was the competition so thin?
I guess it is time I admit it: The romance that is my childhood memories may bear little semblance to reality. Not all children’s books will appeal to adults. I’ve been spoiled. So many of the books I enjoyed as a child--The Chronicles of Narnia, The Hobbit, James and the Giant Peach, Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret--have become only more enjoyable when I read them as an adult. Then there is the Harry Potter series. I’m obviously too old to have enjoyed it as a child, but I certainly delight in them now. So when I pick up a children’s book, I expect it to entertain me. Perhaps I’m asking too much.
So let me give this book two reviews.
REVIEW #1: For Those Under 15 or Buying for Those Under 15
Overall rating: 4 stars Pros: Fun to solve puzzle, ending is very thorough Cons: Hard to suspend disbelief in spots.
The Westing Game begins when 16 soon-to-be heirs converge on a tower and rent apartments. Little do they know that they have all been brought there to participate in the “Westing Game.” They’re all characters with individual goals and distinct personalities. Throughout the course of the book, the layers are peeled away and we learn more about each of them. None of them are entirely what they seem or who they project. Since I wouldn’t want to ruin any of the discovery process, I’ll merely introduce them as they are when you meet them:
Turtle Wexler: She’s one of the main protagonists. A plucky girl with a braid who likes to kick people’s shins. She’s the “ugly duckling” of the family and resents it. But she’s smart and aggressive and has not a small portion of greed.
Flora Baumbach: She’s a somewhat timid dressmaker and widow. She always has a kind word for everyone and speaks softly so as not to inconvenience anyone.
Angela Wexler: She’s 20, and Turtle’s older sister. Everyone comments on her beauty, her engagement, and her looks. She’s well-behaved and the “perfect” daughter.
Sydelle Pulaski: An oddball secretary, she behaves with eccentricity because she’s tired of going unnoticed.
Theopolis Theodokoris: Theo is the older son of the couple that own the apartment’s coffee shop and considers himself his brother’s keeper. He’s a senior in high school and wants to be a writer.
Chris Theodokoris: Theo’s brother. He has a severe disability that has left him dependent on a wheelchair for transportation. He is also barely able to speak or control his body movements. He enjoys birdwatching and is lonely for company.
Doug Hoo: Also a high school senior, he is a track star with Olympic dreams. He likes to tease Turtle, but is most concerned with running.
Denton Deere: Denton is Angela’s fiancee. He’s also a medical intern who specializes in plastic surgery.
Berthe Crowe: A Salvation Army soup kitchen volunteer who dresses in all black, she is obsessed with sin and its penalty.
Otis Amber: The 62-year-old delivery "boy." He delivers mail, packages, and whatever else to the apartment building and elsewhere on his bike.
Grace Windsor Wexler: She is the social-climbing mother to Turtle and Angela. She is frequently snobbish, adores Angela, and has little patience with Turtle or her husband.
Mr. James Shin Hoo: He owns the Chinese restaurant at the top of the apartment building. He’s Doug’s father and Madame Hoo’s husband. He’s frustrated that people would rather go to the coffee shop than his restaurant.
Jake Wexler: A fun-loving guy who exasperates his wife. He’s also a foot doctor and cuts the corns out of the feet of apartment residents.
Madame Sun Lin Hoo: She married Mr. Hoo three years earlier and hasn’t learned much English yet, so she has few friends. She’s often treated like window dressing by everyone but Jake.
Judge J.J. Ford: A judge on the appellate court, she has a grudge against the Westing millionaire. She’s tough, but fair—just what you’d expect a judge to be. While she may carry a grudge, she's a thoroughly likable character.
Sandy McSouthers: Sandy is the doorman and is everyone’s pal. His age is similar to Otis’ and he has a large family to support.
Each of the 16 heirs are called to the Westing mansion after it is announced that the famous inventor, Samuel Westing is dead. The will reveals that his life was taken from him by one of the people in the room and whoever figures it out will inherit $200 million. He pairs them up, gives each pair $10,000 and a set of four clues.
Only the reader has all of the clues available, and certain solutions may present themselves right away. But those solutions may seem confusing at first and the book will take you on a wild romp to figure out the answers.
Ultimately, while this is a puzzle book, it is a book about the characters. What each person learns about himself or herself or the others around him or her, is more important than the puzzle the will presents.
The book also follows each character many years into the future so no reader can be left with any doubt about how the story turns out for each person. There is a sense of finality when the book is done and a surety that there will be no sequels.
There are few books that have this many characters who are so well-developed and who go through so many changes throughout the course of the novel. For that reason alone, it’s a good book to read. If you see it in the library, or are really looking for something different to read, pick this up. If you have a son, daughter, niece, or nephew who enjoy mysteries or puzzles, you can’t go wrong with this book.
REVIEW #2: For Anyone over 18 with No Kids to Buy For
Overall rating: 2 stars Pros: Character development Cons: Contrived, puzzle is too easy
I find myself annoyed way too many times while reading this. Ellen Raskin, the author, has a habit of telling us rather than showing us what the characters are thinking or what their emotional reaction is to an event or statement. It threw me off every time it happened. It made me feel like she had just stuck a bull ring in my nose and was yanking me in a direction I knew to be misleading just so that the ending would be a surprise.
I also expected characters with the intelligence these folks exhibited to be a little more skeptical about some of the things that were happening to them. They all are easily led by Samuel Westing into his game and none of them question the more obvious manipulations.
While there were some unexpected things revealed in the ending, it was hardly surprising or convincing. Indeed, anyone who has read many mysteries at all will find the ending transparent. Granted, most children in grades 4-7 probably haven’t read a whole bunch of mysteries yet (unless they are Nancy Drew or Hardy Boy fans), so it works for Raskin’s audience.
I also had little patience for the final few chapters where Raskin makes sure we know what happens to every single character for the rest of their life. While it brought a certain amount of closure to the book—bringing some things back around to the beginning, but with a more positive future—I felt it was overdone. I enjoy some subtlety, and give kids enough credit to catch on to it.
It is also strange to go from the beginning of the novel where really none of the characters are completely sympathetic (and some are outright despicable) to the end of the novel where you have a sympathy for all of them. And yet, having just typed that statement, I see the value in it for a children’s book (or an adult's for that matter). What better lesson can we teach than to tell our children that people aren’t always what they seem? With patience and perseverance, it is possible to find something likeable about even the strangest appearing people.
Perhaps that’s why this book won a Newberry Award....more