The Westing Game

by Ellen Raskin

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The novel begins as a mysterious sixty-two year-old delivery boy delivers six letters from a "Barney Northrup" to preselected clients in a scheme to attract them to a new luxury apartment building on the shore of Lake Michigan. Appealing to certain human weaknesses —the desire to have an elegant address at a reduced cost and to associate with the rich—Northrup wheedles his victims into taking the apartments. The building stands alone by the lake at the edge of town; its only neighbor is the Old Westing House, an empty mansion once occupied by the famous founder of Westing Paper Products. On Halloween night, Turtle Wexler, shin-kicking pest and future financier, is lured into the mansion as the result of a bet. Alone in the dark, Turtle finds a mysterious corpse. The following day the death of Sam Westing is announced and sixteen residents of the apartment building find that they have been chosen as possible Westing heirs. Their task, announced in an eccentric will, is to discover who murdered Sam Westing and to play and solve the Westing game to win the fortune.

Literary Qualities

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Raskin is always original, tough, and witty. Her honesty obliges her to show that humor and the imagination are necessary defenses in a world which, although often lively and beautiful, has the ability to wound and crush. Every Raskin novel is a funny and imaginative perspective on the world, invariably with the message that people must make their own happiness.

Raskin was influenced by the fiction of Joseph Conrad (1857-1924), particularly his manner of depicting character. In Conrad's Lord Jim (1900), a young officer makes a terrible mistake by abandoning innocent passengers on a ship he thinks is about to sink. The novel demonstrates that whether a person is a hero or a coward is partly a matter of environment and chance. Before his death, Jim becomes a heroic figure, showing that he had the potential to be either a hero or a coward.

Raskin develops character in her novels in the same way that Conrad approaches the character of Lord Jim. In her last three novels Raskin's heroines initially perceive the other characters in one way. But as Raskin develops the characters throughout the books, it becomes clear that the heroine has only a partial view of others' personalities. This is particularly true with family members, who are apt to be the villains in Raskin's novels. It is one of the tasks of the Raskin heroine to see beyond her first impressions.

In The Westing Game, Raskin goes much further than she does in the other novels to empathize with the truly horrible character, who in this case is Gracie Wexler, a failed parent. Although Gracie is one of the most repellent of Raskin's characters—a social climber, a conventional thinker, a racist, a dreadful wife and mother—she becomes a happy, successful businesswoman and wife, with a flair for managing wildly original Chinese restaurants. With this characterization, Raskin stresses the redeeming power of love. More than any other theme in the novel, the promise of second chances makes this an unusually optimistic Raskin work.

Combining the puzzle of a mystery with the turbulence of the characters' lives, The Westing Game provides challenging reading. Raskin divides the text into short sections, allowing readers to pause along the way, add up the clues, and consider the circumstances of the characters.

Social Sensitivity

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When Raskin was a child in Milwaukee, she suffered both the frightening experience of sudden poverty in the Great Depression and the pain of discrimination directed against her because of her Jewish heritage. She retained, as many creative artists do, an unusually sensitive recollection of her childhood. She had cause, also, to sympathize with the plight of the disabled, although her own serious connective tissue disorder was a secret from most people.

The situations of Judge Ford and the Theodorakis. family involve the most sensitive social issues in the novel, although Jake Wexler's Jewish background and Gracie's racist remarks about young Mrs. Hoo are also touched upon. Mrs. Hoo is a recent immigrant from China, exploited by her unsympathetic husband and unable to make friends because of her unfamiliarity with English. Raskin makes the reader aware of Mrs. Hoo's loneliness and her desire to be a good stepmother, but Mrs. Hoo's speech and thoughts are expressed in extremely simple English. This makes her character appear limited and childlike to the readeran experience that reflects the awkward social situation of the new immigrant.

The Theodorakis family is burdened by Chris, their beloved disabled child, because they cannot afford the necessary medical treatment. Even though Chris is gentle and absorbed in study, his condition requires the family to sacrifice time and effort, and denies them the leisure and outside interests all people need. Theo feels a mixture of love, empathy, resentment, and guilt when he thinks of his brother. The other characters' reactions to Chris provide a thoughtful introduction to a difficult subject.

Although Raskin includes a wide variety of social issues in the novel, she gives most attention to J. J. Ford's sensitivity over her black heritage. Raskin is direct in her portrayal of the judge's insecurity. J. J. Ford is a strong character, and her generous loyalties and her delight in becoming a giver instead of a taker are convincing. Her emotional reserve and her reluctance to enter into personal relationships with others are reminiscent of Raskin's own personality.

Among the myriad flaws and yearnings of the novel's characters, physical differences become variations on the human condition. The characters' diverse solutions and compromises are so many gifts from a generous author in the final work of her career.

For Further Reference

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Back, Alice. "Ellen Raskin: Some Clues about Her Life." Horn Book 61 (April 1985): 162-167. A memorial to Raskin by a friend and fellow author.

Flanagan, Dennis. 'The Raskin Conglomerate." Horn Book 55 (August 1979): 392-395. A witty essay on Raskin by her husband, the long-time editor of Scientific American, on the occasion of Raskin's winning the Newbery Medal for The Westing Game.

Raskin, Ellen. "Characters and Other Clues." Horn Book 54 (December 1978): 620-625. Raskin explains the sources of characters in The Westing Game and other novels.

"Newbery Medal Acceptance." Horn Book 55 (August 1979): 385-391. Raskin gives an overview of her career and influences.

Roginski, Jim. Behind the Covers: Interviews with Authors & Illustrators of Books for Children and Young Adults. Littleton, CO: Libraries Unlimited, 1985. Contains a perceptive interview with Raskin.

Wisconsin Education Television Network. "The Creative Process of Ellen Raskin." This is a 30-minute video that can be ordered from the Children's Book Center at the University of Wisconsin.

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