I somehow missed this book as a kid. It was written in 1978 and won the Newbery Medal, so one would think either that I would have read it or that I would remember a determined Custer’s-last-stand-style battle to defend my right NOT to read it (cough – Bridge to Terabithia – uncough) against an army of librarians. But as far as I can remember, I never knew that this book existed until this past June, when a parent enrolled his son at the tutoring center where I was working and wanted me to teach a specific middle-school reading course to him in a one-on-one setting. And you know what? My life was better off without it.
Remember the movie version of the board game Clue? All the characters from the board game are invited to a dinner party in Mr. Boddy’s mansion, and then Mr. Boddy is murdered, and for the rest of the evening the guests all run around screaming and hiding from each other as they try to figure out who the killer is, and in the process they reveal to each other and to the reader that many of the characters know each other from the past and have a variety of grievances toward each other and toward Mr. Boddy. And while this novel doesn’t have any character with as creepy a name as “Mr. Boddy,” The Westing Game follows a similar premise. First, a number of individuals and families are given special invitations to move into a new high-rise apartment building called Sunset Towers. While these people don’t know this at the time, someone has done careful research on their lifestyles and desires and secret fears and has planned the apartment building to appeal to each person and family’s desires. The apartments are also surprisingly inexpensive, and of course each individual and family agrees to move right in.
The characters in this novel are all ridiculous, overwrought caricatures, although as I type this statement I realize that Raskin draws these characters using more or less the same techniques that Dickens uses, and while I sometimes roll my eyes at Dickens a little, mostly I think his novels are great. I don’t think they’re great because of his simplistic character-tagging, but I think they transcend this imperfection in a way that allows me to overlook it. I’m not sure why I’m willing to give Dickens a pass while I rake Ellen Raskin over the coals – perhaps it’s the fact that his world is in some ways strange to me, so I don’t notice how simplistic his characters are, while Raskin’s world is more or less my own world, so I expect more of her. Or maybe it’s the whole man-book and woman-book dilemma. I haven’t gone off on a tirade about man books and woman books on this blog for a good eight or nine months. Should tonight be the night? No? All right.
Enough funny business; time to get busy telling you about this nasty, annoying little book. It turns out that the person who financed Sunset Towers and planned the apartments to each person’s liking is a millionaire named Samuel Westing. Shortly after the novel begins, Mr. Westing dies, and everyone who lives in Sunset Towers is summoned to the reading of his will. It turns out that they are all potential heirs of Mr. Westing’s considerable estate, but first they have to solve a mystery. Of course. In children’s novels, someone is always solving a mystery. They are paired up and given sets of clues and a sum of money that they can use in any way they like in the service of finding out who killed Mr. Westing. The protagonist of the novel is twelve year-old Turtle Wexler, who is obsessed with the stock market and kicks people in the shins if they touch her braid. Other characters include the Hoo family – track-star son, restaurateur father, pathetic homesick non-English speaking mother – the Theodorakis family – coffee-shop owning Greek-immigrant parents, handicapped son Chris, guilt-ridden non-handicapped son Theo – an African-American judge, an accident-prone secretary, a mentally-handicapped sixty year-old delivery boy named Otis Amber (but don’t worry – he’s only PRETENDING to be mentally handicapped), and the rest of Turtle’s family: social-climbing mother Grace, podiatrist father Jake, and sister Angela, who suffers at the hands of the patriarchy. Yes, really – this novel has a radical feminist agenda, along with, of course, its other agendas.
I am officially giving this novel more attention that it deserves. Let’s just suffice it to say this: the potential heirs to the Westing estate take way too long to figure out that the mystery revolves around the first verse of “America, the Beautiful” (which ties in to the novel’s pro-immigration agenda). Someone starts setting off bombs made out of ordinary household items à la the Tsarnaev brothers. The secretary routinely gets injured and gets decked out in polka-dotted crutches and neon casts and that sort of thing, and we learn that women should be doctors rather than housewives and then every single good character in the book gets what he/she wants. Oh, and it also turns out that Mr. Westing isn’t really dead after all.
This book seems to me like a parody of a children’s novel. I absolutely understand why kids love mystery stories, and I also think mystery stories help school-aged children pay attention to details and draw conclusions and all sorts of other useful things. But I can’t stand the way protagonists in children’s literature always get what they want and failure is never even considered a plausible option. Ellen Raskin also seems to believe that “creative” and “weird” are synonyms. She is right to want to be creative and bold in her storytelling, and it’s true that a writer of mystery stories needs to use detail and character to distinguish her story from all the other mysteries out there, but this book suffers from a failure to understand that creativity is not about making things look weird but by pushing human behavior and reactions to unexpected places. Many great children’s novels cross the boundaries into weird – Mary Poppins and her flying umbrella, Harry Potter and everything associated with Gilderoy Lockhart, The Hobbit and Gollum, etc. – but these books use weirdness in service of something more. Mary Poppins’ magical child-rearing antics represent an adult’s fantasy, not a child’s fantasy, and Mary Poppins is about the fragmentation of family life in late-Victorian and Edwardian Britain and the suppressed desires of both men and women to be free of domestic responsibilities. Gollum of course is a representation of greed and envy, and all the silliness surrounding Gilderoy Lockhart is, of course, a subtle warning to Harry about the dangers and temptations he will face in his life as a celebrity. The point I’m making here is that in all of these books weirdness is a starting point, not an ending point. A writer can begin a novel absolutely any way she wants to. A character can be standing alone on the surface of the moon, locked in a prison cell with a hundred clowns, having dinner with the Pope and an army of talking penguins, whatever. But from that starting point the plot must move forward with attention to the ways that human emotions and desires influence behavior, and every action must be driven by plausible human motives. Taking an unhappy secretary and putting her on polka-dotted crutches doesn’t cut it.