“The Westing Game,” a Tribute to Labor That Became a Dark Comedy of American Capitalism
During the financial crisis of 1873, an Austrian immigrant to Wisconsin named John Michael Kohler bought the Sheboygan Union Iron & Steel Foundry from his father-in-law and created the Kohler Company. The company hit it big with bathtubs, and, in 1899, Kohler bought land west of Sheboygan, which sits an hour up the coast of Lake Michigan from Milwaukee, to situate a new factory. Kohler died in 1900, but his son, Walter J. Kohler, turned the land into Kohler, Wisconsin, a company village. By 1914, Kohler employed more than a thousand workers in its factory, many of them immigrants. The first building in Kohler was called the American Club, and it was decorated with American flags and portraits of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. According to Suellen Hoy’s “Chasing Dirt: The American Pursuit of Cleanliness,” Walter Kohler, at the building’s dedication, said that he hoped the name would be “a factor in inculcating in the men of foreign antecedents, a love for their adopted country.” Kohler, like his workers, lived in Kohler, on a lavish Tudor Revival estate called Riverbend that reportedly cost him, in the early twenties, more than a million dollars to build.
Walter Kohler instituted a company policy stating that promotions would only be given to American citizens. Factory foremen helped enroll workers in nighttime Americanization classes; every April, the company celebrated “Americanization Day” by driving workers to the courthouse to fill out citizenship paperwork in flag-festooned cars. The Kohler company was wildly prosperous, and Kohler, a moderate Republican, was elected governor of Wisconsin, in 1928. Then came the crash, and the Democratic wave led by F.D.R. In 1932, Kohler lost a bid for reëlection; the Socialist Party of America held a national convention in Milwaukee and hailed Sheboygan’s Fred C. Haack, an alderman first elected in 1897, as the country’s first-ever socialist officeholder. (This was probably incorrect.) Two years later, the American Federation of Labor organized a union of Kohler workers and lobbied for raises; Walter Kohler refused to negotiate, and the workers went on strike. Violence broke out when special deputies attempted to escort a coal car across a picket line, and two strikers were killed. Dozens more were injured. In 1940, a federal grand jury indicted the Kohler Company on charges of conspiracy to fix industry prices. The month after the indictment, Kohler died of a heart attack that looked, to many, to have been caused by shock.
When Kohler died, Ellen Raskin was twelve years old and living in Milwaukee. Five years later, she went to the University of Wisconsin, intending to major in journalism. She became an illustrator and book designer instead, later creating the original cover of “A Wrinkle in Time.” She began writing and illustrating her own books, and then, in the seventies, she turned to writing novels for young people. The first of these, published in 1971, features a woman named Caroline Fish Carillon, who, with the help of her children, Tina and Tony (both of whom she calls “Tiny”), goes looking for her missing husband, Leon, who has changed his name to Noel. In 1976, Raskin began to work on what would become her last book, a mystery called “The Westing Game,” which revolves around the death of a cryptically patriotic industrial tycoon.
“The sun sets in the west (just about everyone knows that), but Sunset Towers faced east. Strange!” So “The Westing Game” begins. Sunset Towers, we soon learn, is a “glittery, glassy” five-story apartment building on an empty stretch of shore on Lake Michigan, and it’s vacant, but a mysterious salesman named Barney Northrup has baited a carefully chosen set of families into moving in. (“There was no such person as Barney Northrup,” Raskin quickly clarifies, just after introducing him. This is how the book proceeds generally.) These tenants were “mothers and fathers and children,” Raskin writes. “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.”
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The novel’s landscape is as spare as a chessboard, all the better to frame the action: there’s Sunset Towers, the vast lake, and, in the background, a mansion owned by Samuel Westing, a reclusive man who had been a humble immigrant before becoming a union-busting paper-products magnate. Westing is found dead, and sixteen letters are quickly delivered from his estate, inviting the inhabitants and workers of Sunset Towers to a reading of the tycoon’s will. A lawyer divides the group into eight pairs and announces that they are all potential heirs to Westing’s two-hundred-million-dollar fortune. He distributes eight envelopes filled with seemingly nonsensical clues and instructs the guests that the objective of the unexplained game is to win. “ ‘Take stock in America, my heirs, and sing in praise of this generous land,’ ” he reads from the will. “ ‘You, too, may strike it rich who dares to play the Westing game.’ ”
“The Westing Game” is an enigmatic sort of bicentennial creation: a tribute, a pastiche, and a critique. The clues in the inheritance game are jumbled pieces of the song “America the Beautiful,” as if someone cut up the lyrics and tossed them in a hat. (Raskin’s characters don’t figure this out for quite some time; I’d guess that most of her first-time readers, even in the Google era, take almost as long to catch on.) At the reading of the will, at the mansion, Westing himself is present, lying in an open coffin that’s draped in bunting. His waxy corpse is dressed up as Uncle Sam.
The group of potential heirs is conspicuously multicultural—“deliberately, flagrantly, almost allegorically” so, as the writer and Columbia professor Nicholas Dames put it in an essay about the book, published last year. There are the Theodorakis brothers, one of whom is disabled, whose Greek parents run a coffee shop out of Sunset Towers. There’s Josie-Jo Ford, a well-heeled black judge, and a Chinese-American family that includes a star teen-age athlete, a restaurateur-turned-inventor father, and a stepmother who doesn’t speak English. There’s a Polish secretary with a fake injury, and a ghostly, devout cleaning woman called Crow, and the Wexlers, a half-Jewish family whose status-obsessed matriarch cocoons her beautiful daughter Angela in wedding preparations while neglecting her younger kid, Turtle—a smart, brave, prickly tomboy who runs around accepting dares and kicking people, trailing a “kite tail of a braid.” (Raskin kept a file cabinet of photos to use as references, and the images for Turtle and Angela are dead-on.) Turtle is a stand-in for Raskin’s younger self, a “compulsive perfectionist,” as Raskin put it. She’s also the character that readers naturally identify with—a creature of verve, toughness, minor deception.
“The Westing Game” was published in 1978 and won the Newbery Medal. In her acceptance speech, Raskin described the characters as “sixteen imperfect ethnics.” Each of the characters, she noted, has a physical, emotional, or moral defect that makes them easier to remember. They are conspicuously imperfect. “Aren’t we all?” she said.
As for Westing, he was inspired not only by Kohler but also by Howard Hughes, who died in April, 1976. Three weeks after his death, a handwritten will purportedly belonging to Hughes appeared on the desk of an official of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The “Mormon Will” divided Hughes’s $2.5-billion estate into sixteen pieces, one of them allocated to a Utah gas-station owner named Melvin Dummar, who claimed to have once rescued Hughes in the desert. Two years later, a Nevada court found that Dummar had forged the will. In this slow-swirling maelstrom of American kitsch and allegiance and fate and reversal, Raskin concocted her mystery, a game of capitalism and inheritance, which frames America as both a land of obscure and marvellous possibility and also a hollow farce.
Beneath the game that gives the novel its plot, Raskin built a narrative substructure that consists of the intersecting identity crises experienced by the sixteen—sixteen! For a children’s book!—protagonists. (The best children’s books, I have found, are often better than adult fiction at inculcating and rewarding patience.) With the inheritance contest as pretext, they study one another closely. They try to figure out what everyone else has been given: they want to know who got lucky, who plays dirty, who knows how to convert a roll of the dice into gold. There are wild-goose chases, setbacks, secrets, bombings. All of this slowly converts Sunset Towers into an oddly salutary hothouse environment. Samuel Westing’s game is a puzzle designed to make people treat one another as puzzles—as creations worth sustained attention and interpretation. In analyzing one another’s motivations and assets, the characters feel their own buried ones come to life. The atmosphere gets loose; desire leads to surprises. Under the light of one another’s often hapless scrutiny, all sixteen characters start to grow.
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The magic of Samuel Westing’s game is, like America itself, marked by capriciousness and contradiction. Competition and coöperation seem mutually exclusive until they don’t. At the end of the game, none of the characters has inherited the two hundred million dollars, but the idea that they might have done so—the sudden consciousness that life can change wildly in an instant—has proved to be something that can pass for enough. The book seems to suggest that the real American inheritance is transformation, and that American transformation is a mercurial thing. In her Newbery speech, Raskin said, wryly, that, as she wrote the novel, her “tribute to American labor history ended up a comedy in praise of capitalism.” But, for me, the book lands a little differently. “The Westing Game” is a comedy in praise of the messes people make when they’re allowed to access a sense of possibility. Money drives that, of course, and Westing’s fortune is a racy prospect. But Westing himself, the capitalist king, is a dark, strange, even pathetic Wizard of Oz figure: an old man playing a series of tricks to multiply his presence into the illusion of something more.
The only one who figures this out about Westing—the only one who understands that seeing through the game is how you win—is stubborn, independent Turtle. The sun eventually sets on Westing’s final deception, which you could also call his final reinvention; he’s stretched this country’s possibilities as far as they can go. It rises on Turtle, who has become heir not to the tycoon’s fortune but to his secrets and his ambitions, and, seemingly, in the future, to his Westing Company-board seat. She is an adult by the end of the novel, poised and deliberate. As a kid, reading this book again and again and again, I felt a quiet flare of ambiguous promise when I considered Turtle’s trajectory. She’d been shaped by old Westing, and then she’d outlasted him. At the end of the novel, she goes back to her mansion to spend the afternoon with her niece Alice, who wears a long braid down her back. In the book’s last line, Turtle asks, “Ready for a game of chess?”