Thursday, June 20, 2024

The 6th Grade Book You Should [Re]Read Now

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At this point in my life, I feel fairly comfortable owning the fact that I have a penchant for children’s media. Well, more accurately, I have a penchant for intelligent media that isn’t plagued with grimdark shock-writing, which outside of children’s media, is exceedingly rare.

So yes, I have a penchant for children’s media, I podcast about children’s media, and I dissect everything about the world children’s media presents, just like every other 28-year-old out there. Right?

The thing is, while anyone who knows me understands at this point that I’ll never shut up about The Legend of Korra or Steven Universe, and have plenty to say with regards to the Harry Potter franchise, the one narrative I’ve actually read and engaged with the most is…a book I first read in 4th grade. And then again a few times throughout middle school, including for class in 8th grade, and then I listened to the audiobook while going for runs in high school, and then as a de-stressor during college finals, and then as something light to get me through breakups. It’s just that I don’t think there’s a fandom surrounding it. So I’m here to change that.

The book I’m talking about is The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin. It should be noted that the thing was penned in 1978, but all things considered, it’s aged fairly well. Especially since the author makes sure to call out most problematic behavior.

“She does look young, but it’s so hard to tell ages of people of the Oriental persuasion,” Grace said. Why was he glaring at her like that? “Your wife is quite lovely, you know, so doll-like and inscrutable.”
Hoo bit off half a chocolate bar. He had enough problems with the empty restaurant, a lazy son, and his nagging ulcer; now he has to put up with this bigot.

Shut up, Grace.

Are you not intrigued?

Loosely put, the premise is a murder mystery. An eccentric and fiercely patriotic businessman named Sam Westing dies and in his will, rather than doling out his possessions, he tasks his sixteen seemingly random heirs with figuring out who killed him. Since he…apparently knew ahead of time. The heirs are divided into (yet again) seemingly random pairs, and the duo that comes up with the answer wins the windfall.

I’ll say, it’s not exactly the most straight-forward thing in the world, even if an 8th grader could probably figure it out, and this central mystery is presented with a healthy side-helping of wordplay that still seems too damn clever. There’s also allusions to chess, to patriotism, to sordid past affairs… Plenty to sink your death into.

Even if murder mysteries aren’t your jam, there’s another overarching piece of intrigue: these heirs aren’t random at all. We’re told in the first chapter that they were hand-selected. But why?

Who were these people, these specially selected tenants? They were mothers and fathers and children. A dressmaker, a secretary, an inventor, a doctor, a judge. And, oh yes, one was a bookie, one was a burglar, one was a bomber, and one was a mistake. Barney Northrup had rented one of the apartments to the wrong person.

I’ll say going back and reading through knowing what person matches these descriptions, and understanding the big “why” behind it all…nothing gets lost. Instead there’s lovely foreshadowing throughout, and many character arcs that become downright tragic on second-thought.

And it’s that last piece that makes this book such a darling of mine. Are you surprised? The characters are downright brilliant. They feel fully realized, helped along by Raskin floating in and out of each of their heads at various points.

We have something of a main character in Tabitha-Ruth (“Turtle”) Wexler, the youngest heir in the game (she’s thirteen), and the one who is rather baldly written to appeal to the intended audience. She’s dangerously smart, enterprising, has a bizarre amount of legal and financial knowledge, and is also not afraid to give a swift kick in the shins to anyone who pulls her braid. Oh, and she also is jewish and never stops asking questions, so…I was won over rather instantly my first time through.

Even though there is bit of an element to her where it feels heavy-handed in how much we’re supposed to like her (she doesn’t like being called “adorable”; she wants to look mean!), she doesn’t fall into the Mary Sue trope or blank-slate trap we sometimes see with protagonists for this age group. It’s clear when she’s acting out of bravado, and how her tendency to rudeness is hardly an asset.

Please don’t confuse her with this creature from the tv-movie “adaptation” of this book.

She’s also painfully age-appropriate, and when the last few chapters give us a snapshot of her in adulthood, it serves to highlight her past immaturity. Like when she insulted a sad, lonely women who faked a disease so she could get attention from “needing” crutches:

“Ridiculous. You’re just jealous of your sister.”
“Maybe,” Turtle had to admit, “but I am what I am. I don’t need a crutch to get attention.” Oh, oh, she had gone too far.
“Turtle didn’t mean it that way, Sydelle,” Angela said quickly. “She used the word crutch as a symbol. She meant, you know, that people are so afraid of revealing their true selves, they have to hide behind some sort of prop.”
“Oh, really?” Sydelle replied. “Then Turtle’s crutch is her big mouth.”
No, Angela thought, hurrying her sister out of the door and back to their apartment, Turtle’s crutch is her braid.

Speaking of Angela—oh Angela. She makes my heart hurt, because we have a Dutiful Princess alert. And she is so determined to please her mother and so unable to voice her own needs that she gets driven to…rather extreme measures. She is absolutely wonderful, and I’ll hear no words against her. Especially since we’ve all wanted to run away from parties and sob into dishtowels, which is a thing that actually happened.

The thing is, while Turtle gets a fair bit of focus (along with her sister), it really is an ensemble-focused narrative.

The other heirs include Angela and Turtle’s parents, Grace the rather horrible social-climber, and Jake the podiatrist who is kind of checked out as a dad/husband. Angela’s got herself a fiancé who she is totally definitely into (*coughs*), there’s the Theodorakis brothers, the Hoo family, Flora Bombach the dressmaker, Sydelle Pulaski with her chronic fear of being overlooked and demeaned, Judge J.J. Ford, an appellate judge with a very complicated relationship to Sam Westing, having been a daughter of one of his servants but also something like a protégé… All these people live in the same apartment building (except Angela’s fiancé), and even the cleaning woman, the doorman, and the delivery boy are heirs. We learn something about each of their backstories, and the way in which they are paired off and interact with one another help bring out each other’s qualities in a unique and unexpected way.

It’s also just funny! There are parts where you will laugh out loud.

“If Westing expected it, he’d have seen it coming. His face would have looked scared.”
“Maybe he didn’t see it coming,” Theo argued. “The killer was very cunning, Westing said. I read a mystery once where the victim was allergic to bee stings and the murderer let a bee in through an open window.”
“The window wasn’t open,” Turtle said, wiping her nose. “Besides, Westing would have heard the buzzing and jumped out of bed.”
Doug had an idea. “Maybe the murderer injected bee venom in his veins.”
Otis Amber flung his arms in the air. “Whoever said Sam Westing was allergic to bees?”

All told, this book will take you an afternoon to read, if that. It’s perfect fodder for a flight. But there’s something about it that will stay with you—that will never allow you to consider a chessboard or “America the Beautiful” in quite the same way. Read it. Reread it. Join Angela-standom with me. There’s always more to be said about it, I promise.

Images courtesy of E. P. Dutton and Hallmark Entertainment

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