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9 March 2009, 4:00 pm 10 Comments

Commentary: Read Me!: The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

TNG contributor Philip submitted this post. “Read Me!” is a monthly column looking at books of potential interest to GLBT readers.

Some books are obviously “gay books”: the characters are explicitly gay, sexuality plays an important role in the plot.

Other books are more open to debate: does an author’s being gay or lesbian make a book by that author inherently a “gay book”? Does the existence of an emotional relationship between two male or two female characters make a book gay? When I was a high school freshman and read Hermann Hesse’s Demian, I became conscious that part of the book’s appeal for me was the nature of the friendship between Demian and the narrator, Emil Sinclair. And later, when I taught John Knowles’s A Separate Peace to high school students, one of them would occasionally question whether the characters Gene and Finny were gay. Sex and sexuality don’t feature in either Demian or A Separate Peace, yet it is apparently possible to read the intensity of their central relationships as going beyond regular friendship.

But why, both as a child and now, does the prism of my sexuality so affect how I view Ellen Raskin’s Newbery-winning mystery The Westing Game? Can a book by a heterosexual author, without gay characters, without sex, and without intense same-gender relationships still qualify as a “gay book”?

This last was a question wrestled with by the committee that developed The Publishing Triangle’s list of the “100 best lesbian and gay novels” in 1999. Could To Kill a Mockingbird qualify as an LGBT novel, as many young lesbians read the tomboyish Scout as a developing baby-dyke? What about characters many gay and lesbian readers had secret crushes on, like the protagonists of the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew series? (These, after all, were also campy enough to spawn such books as Mabel Maney’s Nancy Clue and The Hardly Boys parodies.) What about children’s classic Harriet the Spy (admittedly written by butch lesbian Louise Fitzhugh), which featured another tomboy protagonist? In the end, To Kill a Mockingbird made the list and the others didn’t, but the reasons had as much to do with literary quality as any accord having been reached in the debate.

These are the arguments in my mind as I consider my deep affection for The Westing Game. Part of my enjoyment of the book is literary: Raskin has written an absorbing mystery with stunningly complex plotting. The game of the title is the search by the sixteen heirs of paper-product magnate Sam Westing to discover which of them killed him. Paired up into eight teams, the heirs must try to piece together seemingly useless clues Westing leaves for them in his intricate, off-kilter will. The heir who can name Westing’s killer receives his entire $200 million estate; the others get nothing.

Juggling sixteen heirs and several important minor characters, Raskin manages to pull together not only her main plot, but the side dramas in her characters’ lives as they struggle with family relationships, past histories, and new alliances and allegiances along with the fiendishly difficult task put before them. After all, in a novel that features “ a dressmaker, a secretary, an inventor, a doctor, a judge,” but also “a bookie…a burglar…a bomber…and…a mistake,” there are bound to be tensions, quarrels, and puzzles to uncover even beyond the main puzzle of which heir killed Sam Westing.

It is because of these characters that I believe I responded so strongly, as a gay reader, to The Westing Game. For an under-200 page book written for children, The Westing Game does an incredible job developing such a large cast of characters. Nearly all of the heirs have their own crosses to bear, sometimes openly and sometimes very secretly. For example, Flora Baumbach, the dressmaker, masks loneliness and deep pain at the death of her mentally retarded daughter, Rosalie, behind a constant grin. Her seemingly inappropriate response early in the novel to Chris Theodorakis, a palsied, wheelchair-bound teenager, must be entirely reevaluated in light of later discussions about Rosalie.

Each character’s secret, internal life is revealed as the novel continues. J.J. Ford may be cool and confident in her professional life as the first African American judge on the state supreme court, but late revelations about her childhood connection to Sam Westing illuminate wounds she has never gotten past. Angela Wexler looks like the perfect young lady, but deep tensions about her status as daughter, friend, and soon-to-be-wife cause her to consider lashing out. And her younger sister, “Turtle” Wexler, who is seen by even her own mother as a childish, vicious brat, proves not only intelligent, but acutely attentive to detail and capable of sensitivity and emotional warmth.

Gays and lesbians who are not out of the closet are forced to deal with the ramifications of keeping a secret that could cause them danger or rejection if revealed. As a kid carrying around his own secret thoughts and secret life, I believe I was especially ready for the world of The Westing Game. I was not yet able to articulate all the details of my sense of difference when I first read the novel, but there were characters who felt isolated from others, who felt unloved or unlovable, who were seen as freaks. As I grew older and knew what my difference was, I returned to The Westing Game. Because the characters were finally able to reveal themselves—at least to their partner in the game, if not always to the entire group of heirs—and still find acceptance and friendship, not only was The Westing Game a “gay book” for me, but a particularly hopeful one.

Of course, the harboring of secrets and the fear of rejection is not a situation unique to gay people. Ellen Raskin herself had a type of secret life. The public knew her as a cheerful children’s book illustrator—for example, she not only wrote The Westing Game, she also painstakingly designed the book jacket—and an author of both picture books for younger children and four unique and clever novels for older kids. But Raskin spent most of her adult life suffering from bouts of severe pain owing to a rare degenerative disease that attacked the connective tissue in her muscles. The Westing Game’s Sydelle Pulaski, who fakes a wasting disease in a bid for attention fr
om the other heirs, is a psychological curiosity considering the author’s very real condition. Raskin did not speak about the disease that would take her life at the age of only 56 in 1984, but it seems certain that her clear evocation of characters who carry secrets and are seen as outsiders in award-winning works ranging from Figgs and Phantoms to The Tattooed Potato and Other Clues was based in part on her own experiences.

It is therefore under only the broadest possible definition that Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game can be considered a “gay book.” But in defining it as one—however inaccurate that may seem to most—I arrive at a place I find instructive. What authors, gay and straight, are trying to do is to reflect the human condition in their works. When an author succeeds, categorizing the work that results begins to seem irrelevant. Would that we lived in a world where common humanity overcame the categories we impose on ourselves and others.

Questions or comments about this column, The Westing Game, or another glbt novel? Recommendation of something I should read? E-mail me directly at philipclark@hotmail.com.

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  • Drew said:

    Interesting. I loved this book as a kid, and then read it again when I started teaching middle school. It was as good as ever.

    I think that I largely agree with your post. What I liked best about the book was that there was a whole swarm of people involved, all of whom were doing things for their own particular reasons — not all of which are particularly logical.

    I’m also a sucker for any book with a great epilogue, and I guess (judging from The Westing Game) I always have been. Partly, I guess it’s because I had a crush on Theo, and getting Turtle to marry him was as close I was going to get. But again, I also like to know that the characters have lives beyond the little we get to read about.

    Is it a gay book, though? I’m not sure it is. But it feels like one.

    (Speaking of epilogues, you should write about The World According to Garp. It’s the perfect fit for TNG: all about sex and gender and in no way defined by it.)

  • officesupplygeek said:

    Philip – I loved this book as a kid! I used to read it over and over and over again (and still have a copy on my bookshelf). As an adult I have often wondered why it resonated with me so deeply. I agree with your observation that its rich character development and themes of hidden identity will appeal to a gay audience… Thanks for reminding me of what a great story this is!

  • Greg McElhatton said:

    I think I’ve read The Westing Game about 200 times — growing up at one point in time I claimed to have “lost” the library copy of the book and paid them so that I could keep it! (Alas, said copy is now lost for real.)

    I clearly need to go on another Ellen Raskin binge again — even the books of hers that didn’t sing for me in quite the same manner, there are always lines and snippits that have stuck with me forever. (“Oranges and lemons, said the bells of St. Clemens…”) I’d love to somehow have other readers think of the same of things I have written, down the line.

  • Craig said:

    I loved the character Sydelle Pulaski from the book!

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  • Lilly said:

    I really like it so far! b ut I’m not done reading it! my teacher wont let me take the book home so i can finish the homework she’s giving us and I cant find a book online and i never have time to go to a public library so if any of you know where to go for me to find the book and read it online, E-mail me at CookiieKiss@aim.com Thanks SO muchh!! <3

  • Mason said:

    I think it is cool that Sam Westing plays 4 people

  • liv said:

    ok i LOVE LOVE THIS BOOK!!!!!! it is awsome who ever the author is she is like so awsome!!!!!!

  • nikki said: