Raskin, E. (1978). The Westing Game. New York: Scholastic Inc.
The new tenants of Sunset Towers become aware of a mystery when smoke rises from the Westing Mansion nearby, the owner of which was thought long gone. A few days later, all of the building’s residents are called together and partnered up to compete for the deceased Samual W. Westing’s fortune. Not everyone is who he or she seems. And some will go to drastic measures to claim the what they want.
This classic mystery has been sparking interest in students for over thirty years now and is still regularly used or recommended in middle grade elementary schools. It includes subtle themes of empowerment in terms of disability, gender and race, while incorporating a lot of humor and even more tension to keep the student reading.
There are only two potential hesitations that I would have over sharing this text. First, the narrative does include a bomber who sets several small explosions with fireworks. There are a few injuries due to the bombs, but nothing too serious and there’s no real damage to the building. But nonetheless, in a post 9/11 world, that alone could give some teachers and parents some serious pause. The other reason is the fact that the book jumps from perspective to perspective, including those of adults. The adults would still manage to entertain most readers, but the repeated shifting in points of view may be more difficult for some.
Also, while the text still manages to feel very present, there are a few references that a teacher could take on as a "teaching moment." One example is a mention of the Black Panthers.
After finishing this book, a teacher could recommend Agatha Christie herself as a comparative follow-up.
Activities to do with the book:
This is a wonderful book to encourage students to create charts to track characters, their traits, their relationships and plot developments involving them. But instead of presenting it as homework or an organization technique, a teacher can introduce the process as a detective’s tool. That may spark some interest.
This is a fun and classic literature circle mystery or read aloud that does a good job of creating interest with most readers. It could provoke discussions on race, disabilities, feminism, death and the classic sketch “Who’s on First," as well as lessons on how to play chess.
“The sun sets in the west (just about everyone knows that), but Sunset Towers faced east. Strange.
Sunset Towers faced east and had no towers” (p. 1).
“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” (p. 6).
“[Turtle Wexler] was pure of heart and deed; she only kicked shins in self-defense, so that couldn’t count against her” (p. 20).