Miriam Callahan can’t wait to watch the Eurovision Song Contest. She is also working on a monograph, tentatively entitled “Toward a Feminist Theory of Flower Arranging.”

I bought Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game out of the Scholastic book order catalog in first grade. I thought I was hot shit, ordering out of Arrow instead of SeeSaw, but when the book arrived I discovered it was way over my head. It wasn’t until fourth grade when I came to really appreciate how great Ellen Raskin’s writing was, and how rare it was to find a YA mystery book that didn’t treat the reader like a total idiot (I’m looking at you, Encyclopedia Brown). I’ve reread The Westing Game every year since then, more or less, and not just as an exercise in nostalgia, either — The Westing Game rewards rereaders, especially adult ones, with its complex and fascinating themes.

On the surface, The Westing Game is a classic whodunit in the vein of Sherlock Holmes or Agatha Christie. Instead of the 16 suspects being thrown together in an English manor house or on the Orient Express, they all live in Sunset Towers, a brand-new apartment building on the shore of Lake Michigan. They’re also all potential heirs to paper-products tycoon Sam Westing’s immense fortune. Whoever discovers the mystery of Westing’s death will win the whole inheritance.

Even more than a mystery story, however, The Westing Game feels like an American myth. Patriotic motifs abound — there are fireworks, an Uncle Sam costume, and a pair of crutches painted like the American flag. There’s also a Gatsby-esque tale of reinvention: rich old Samuel Westing used to be poor Windy Windkloppel, the son of immigrants, before he recast himself as a shrewd and ruthless businessman.

Even the game at the center of the novel has an explicitly American sense of meritocracy. All the characters — from the doctors and the appellate court judge to the cleaning lady and the woman who doesn’t speak English — have an equal chance to win, because differences of class, race, gender, physical ability, etc. don’t matter in the novel’s universe. Whoever is smart enough to figure out the clues (and they are tough! No boring/obvious Scooby Doo-type nonsense here) will win Westing’s millions.

As a fourth-grader, I was surprised at how easy it was to keep track of which character was which. But I didn’t think about how difficult it must have been to write 16 diverse and memorable characters in under 200 pages. Stereotypes about obvious differences in background and appearance are a potent form of shorthand, and it would have been easy to for Raskin to rely on them. Especially with a cast including eight women, five characters under 20 years old, six over 50, one African-American, three Asian-Americans, one character confined to a wheelchair, and one recovering alcoholic.

But Raskin instead created full, complex portraits of her characters by illustrating their interests, personalities, and imperfections in short but distinct strokes. (Indeed, Raskin started her career as an illustrator of children’s books.) For example, take the Wexler family. Tabitha-Ruth (aka Turtle) is an eighth-grade girl who breaks with gender norms, in addition to displaying a disturbing level of precocity, by playing the stock market and reading the Wall Street Journal. But she is also immature, arguing with her mother and ruthlessly kicking the shins of anyone who messes with her hair.

Turtle’s older sister Angela is beautiful, obedient, and engaged to marry a promising young doctor, but she feels trapped by everyone’s expectations of her and eventually lashes out in a surprising way (I refuse to spoil it for those who haven’t read the book — it’s just too good). Their mother, Grace Windsor Wexler, is introduced as a vain, shallow social climber, but eventually finds success and happiness as a business owner. And her husband Jake, a laid-back podiatrist and bookie, is the only person in Sunset Towers who takes the time to teach English to Madam Hoo, who speaks only Chinese.

Which brings me to the final and (to my mind) the most American element of the book. Sunset Towers is a kind of melting pot writ small, where people of Chinese, Greek, Polish, Jewish, German, and African-American descent form a community. Rereading the book last week, I noticed for the first time how the characters’ attitudes toward each other evolve from competition and mutual distrust toward camaraderie and mutual reliance. At the initial reading of the will, the characters warily size each other up, wondering which one of them could have murdered Sam Westing. At a wedding close to the end of the book, they enjoy each other’s company long after clues and heirs become irrelevant.

Reading the wedding scene, it occurred to me that any American myth has to have a fantastical element. Sadly, in a world where people in some identity groups have privileges that others don’t, Ellen Raskin’s egalitarian vision of 16 very different people learning to live together and respect each other is still very much a fantasy. But the prospect of escaping into that world, if only for a little while, will bring me back to The Westing Game again someday soon.

P.S. If you happen to be interested in writing a YA novel, you can read excerpts from The Westing Game’s manuscript and a listen to a lecture by Ellen Raskin online at the University of Wisconsin’s Cooperative Children’s Book Center.

[Every Tuesday, Canonball revisits a Young Adult Fiction classic. Previously we featured: Walk Two Moons and The Giver. As always, email us if you’d like to contribute a piece.]

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