Welcome to 'Fine Lines', the Friday feature in which we give a sentimental, sometimes-critical, far more wrinkled look at the children's and YA books we loved in our youth. This week, writer / reviewer / blogger Lizzie Skurnick rereads 'The Westing Game', Ellen Raskin's 1978 multi-cultural, multi-generational, multi-p.o.v. mystery about the race for a multi-millionaire's fortune.
The sun sets in the West (just about everybody knows that) but Sunset Towers faced east. Strange!
Okay, it's fine how I just figured out the significance of that line now. But before I get into how I'm still happily flummoxed by a book for the lanyard set, I'd like to say how I've become a little perturbed how technology keeps obviating classic teenage reads. Forget how we no longer need to disembowel our own pigs or avoid being shuttled to the stocks — I mean more recent betrayals, like how the cell phone would have killed Are You in the House Alone, or how Zach could have just kicked Vicky an email after Yellowstone. (I'd still like to think Harriet would have resisted the glories of Facebook.) But worst-worst! — is the most fabulist fabulous The Westing Game, which in present time would have ended abruptly the minute one plugged "FRUITED PURPLE WAVES FOR SEE" into Google.
The story of — do I even need to tell you what this is the story of? Fine, I'll tell you what's it's the story of — a ragtag group who is lured into renting apartments in a luxury apartment building, unbeknownst to its members, to solve a murder — that of the multimillionaire Sam Westing of Westing Paper Products, the shadow of whose mansion looms large over their new homes — and over each of their pasts.
Wow, those flap-copy skills have gotten a little rusty. Anyway, the new tenants of the building are as follows (at great — patience, please — length): The Wexler Family, made up of mother and social climber Grace, father Jake, a bookie, daughter Angela, a beautiful fiancee of Denton Deere, med student, and her sister Turtle, a clever shin-kicker; the Hoo family, comprised of Shin Hoo, proprietor of the building's unsuccessful Chinese restaurant, his son Doug, a long-distance runner, and his non-English-speaking second wife, Mrs. Hoo; Theo Theodorakis and Christos Theodorakis, aspiring writer, crippled birdwatcher, respectively, sons of the proprietor of the building's only successful restaurant, a Greek diner; Flora Baumbach, a unnervingly grinning dressmaker; Berthe Crow, a religous cleaning lady; Judge J.J. Ford, non-Magical Negro and adjudicator; Otis Amber, idiot delivery boy; Barney Northrup, seething building manager, and God I am probably forgetting someone. Secretary Sydelle Pulaski! Well, she was the mystery's "mistake" anyway. And oh, right, Sandy McSouthers, the genial doorman. Anyone with Aspberger's has solved this whole thing by now, but let's continue.
The book commences as follows: the players learn of their mysterious fate — though not of each other's connections to Westing — after the mysterious death of the man in question. Called to the mansion, they are declared heirs, then split into teams and given a series of nonsensical clues written on paper towels, like SEA MOUNTAIN AM O (these are for Flora and Turtle, whose team actually would have had no luck with Google at all!). Their object, with this scarce matter, is to find Westing's murderer-the prize, his 200 million dollar fortune.
What follows is less an And Tween There Were None than a Shakespearian farce, mainly because — aside from the fact that Turtle is the only tween — as the mystery unfolds, Raskin is less concerned with the exigencies of the plot as with the particulars of her characters. It's not mistake that the first task of the heirs is to write down their professions (e.g., "Angela Wexler: none"; Alexander McSouthers: "Doorman.") This is because it's not only the murder of Sam that's a mystery — it's that the players are, deliberately or subconsciously — hiding their true identities as well.
And in this regard, it's fascinating that Raskin doesn't assume the reader is so unsophisticated as to be able to grasp that the players are all currently gripped by identity crises. Grace is terrified her maiden name, "Windkloppel," will be found out. Turtle knows her mother likes her less than Angela, who is emotionally paralyzed by how no one ever refers to anything but her looks or her impending marriage. Judge J.J. can't get over the fact that her education was funded by a man she hates, and Flora is haunted by the death of her disabled daughter. Speaking of disabled, Chris is mortified by his constantly flailing limbs, and Sydelle is triumphant over finally being noticed after a lifetime of secretarial invisibility. And on top of that, among the players, there is thief, a bomber, a private detective, a bookie, a guilt-stricken mother, liar..and, of course, THE MURDERER, and I'm sorry I keep lapsing into flap copy, seriously — it's just that I made an editorial decision to not spoil the plot for you, and what I mainly have left are sonorous overtones of intrigue.
But as it happens, although the building is a Benetton ad-worthy array of oddities, our triumphant multi-culti unity as a nation is not Raskin's lesson. Ethnicity-wise, we see the (generally humorous) warts: Mr. Hoo added the "Shin" because he thought it would make him sound more Chinese, Jake notes Grace conveniently forgets he's a Jew, people talk to Chris like he's 5, and Grace compliments Mrs. Hoo for being so "doll-like and inscrutable," then makes her hors d'oeuvres in a Cheongsam. (I can't blame Raskin for Law & Order for running the black-female-judge meme into the ground.)
The Westing Game is more than a mystery — it's a profound meditation on how humans, given the same clues, miss what's actually missing, projecting, instead, our own images onto the negative space. In future financier Turtle's case, she's convinced her clues represent stock picks — as Theo studies chemistry, he becomes convinced they're an equation. Grace Wexler is so intent on proving she's Sam Westing's niece she doesn't even notice she actually is Sam Westing's niece, and in the unfolding of their race to the finish, J.J. can only see the outlines of the chess moves with which Sam repeatedly defeated her as a girl when she lived in his mansion as the daughter of the maid.
But these self-generated projections don't trap the participants — they're the keys to their freedom. At the last reading of the will, the sheaf of paper mysteriously defines them all not as what they've been but as what they've become: Turtle, financier; Flora, dressmaker; Theo, writer; Doug, champ; Mr. Hoo, inventor; Grace, restaurateur; Jake, bookie; Mrs. Hoo, cook; Angela Wexler, person. The real Sam Westing will die many years from now on the Fourth of July, but the will wishes the assembled a happy 4th — to their great confusion — for another reason: For all of the residents of Sunset Towers, the end of the game is Independence Day.
Note: Last week I asked where The Moon By Night broke the space-time continuum. Poor fools! It was when Vicky and Co. commented that they'd like to Tesser to the next park, referencing, of course, A Wrinkle in Time. I think L'Engle even goes all into it and is all like, "The Austins were speaking of course, of A Wrinkle in Time." And why does this break the space-time continuum? Because if Meg is, within the fictional contraints of The Moon By Night, like, LITERALLY a fictional character, then how does her therefore-fictional daughter Polly also date ZACH, who is dating Vicky in REAL LIFE! Do you see what I'm saying? Is your mind BLOWN?
Anyway, this week's challenge is a little more bare-bones. Simply: What's the book where the father gets the bends? (I'm Google-proofing this not because I'm clever, but because seriously that's pretty much all I can remember.) Winner gets double-snaps in next week's column.
Also: For the 674 people who wrote and commented en masse HELLOoooo on this one, I apologize for delaying a fave. But let a girl get her blog legs! (In the future, if you'd like to write me and urge me not-so-gently to get going on any particular book, I've set up an account at firstname.lastname@example.org. Use it, abuse it. I promise — for those of you boiling weekly to Krakatoa-like levels of impatience, I've made a little list of about 94,347 books, and your faves are on it — and I always read the comments in case they're not. (Snaps to whoever reminded me of Jane-Emily!)
(Thanks to Catherine at This Girl Remembers for this week's cover pic.)
Earlier: The Moon By Night: Travels With Vicky
•My Sweet Audrina: The Book Of Sister And Forgetting
•The Long Secret: CSI: Puberty
•The Cat Ate My Gymsuit: A Pocket Full Of Orange Pits
•The Witch Of Blackbird Pond: Colonies, Slit Sleeves And Stocks, Oh My!
•Are You In The House Alone? One Out Of Four, Maybe More
•Jacob Have I Loved: Oh, Who Am I Kidding, I Reread This Book Once A Week
• Then Again, Maybe I Won't: Close Your Eyes, And Think Of Jersey City
•My Darling, My Hamburger: I Will Gladly Pay You Tomorrow For A D&C Today
•All-Of-A-Kind Family: Where I Would Put Something Yiddish If I Thought You Goyishe Farshtinkiners Would Farshteyn
•Island Of The Blue Dolphins: I'm A Cormorant And I Don't Care
•Little House In The Big Woods: I Play With A Pig Bladder Like It's A Balloon
•The Grounding Of Group Six: Have Fun At School, Kids, And Don't Forget To Die
•Are You There Crazy Psychic Muse? It's Me, Lois Duncan