Looking Back (or Down)

ImageRereading a book you loved as a child is a little like visiting your old elementary school as an adult: the lockers weren’t always that short, were they?  Everything that once seemed huge and mystifying and tremendous looks, well, small.  It hasn’t changed, though – you have.  So I began rereading Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game with some trepidation.  I remembered, vaguely, that I once thought it was brilliant, that it changed the way I thought about the power and potential of words.  I feared that reading it as an adult might make me feel like I was standing in a familiar hallway looking down at the top of a locker I once looked up at.

It turns out that The Westing Game is not the brilliant literate mystery I once thought it was, at least not to an adult jaded both by years of cultural abuse and misuse of language as well as exposure to magnificent literature.  But it’s still clever enough to hold an adult reader’s interest, its linguistic puzzle still mystifying until the end (since I had forgotten both plot details and resolution).  And although I no longer felt the book unlocked the mysteries of language the way I once did, I found other things to appreciate (and, perhaps, to critique).

What I did not notice as a child was the book’s careful breakdown of racial, ethnic, and social stereotyping, although it seems only partially successful as a challenge to those stereotypes.  First published in 1978, its depiction of an apartment building with white, black, and Asian tenants from both professional and working-class backgrounds must have been somewhat unusual.  And it’s not just a token collection of diverse people and families – the book itself, and its characters, is self-conscious about the unusual group it assembles, and the Westing Game is at least partially designed expressly to bring together people who would never otherwise meet.  It’s also highly conscious of the potential pitfalls of its own approach.  Describing a meeting between the African-American Judge Ford and the pretentious wannabe aristocrat Grace Windsor Wexler, Raskin writes, “Proud of her liberalism, Grace Windsor Wexler stood and leaned over the table to shake the black woman’s hand.  She must be here in some legal capacity, or maybe her mother was a household maid….”  And no one is completely immune from Raskin’s critical eye – even the most seemingly virtuous characters are skewered, their flaws laid bare.

For all that, occasionally the book seems to resort to its own stereotyping either for comic purposes or simply because it tilts slightly into the realm of caricature.  But for the most part it’s a sympathetic, deeply human portrait of a group of people who aren’t much like each other and don’t really want to get to know one another, but when forced to spend time together become real neighbors and friends.  That, it turns out, was the real goal of the Westing Game, which I missed at the time.  Sure, it’s about language and puzzles and solving a mystery, but it’s equally about families, friends, neighbors and the way we see ourselves and each other.  It turns out there was another story sitting on top of the locker the whole time.

1 Comment

Filed under Fiction

One response to “Looking Back (or Down)

  1. I vaguely remember this one, and I remember thinking it was really cool, but that’s all I remembered. Certainly none of the social commentary and context stayed with me. (I didn’t start to see that in literature until I was about 37 years old anyway.)

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