The Fascinating Liberalism Politics of Ellen Raskin’s YA Novels

While treating myself to a lazy weekend, I re-read Ellen Raskin’s seminal young adult mystery The Westing Game, and was struck both by how intricate and fun it is (qualities that would be undone by the intrusion of computers into the story, as happens in an unfortunate-looking movie adaptation) and by how complex its politics are for a YA book. Which is not to say that YA novels typically don’t have politics, or that they shouldn’t. But the political messages are often metaphorical, and the lessons are relatively clear and high-level: women can be the equals of men; diversity makes organizations and individuals stronger; benevolence and democratic input are the basis of a strong regime. But both The Westing Game (to which there is, apparently, an unpublished sequel) and The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel) have complex and indecisive relationships with politics, particularly liberal ones.

In The Westing Game — in which, for the unfamiliar, Samuel Westing, a millionaire immigrant industrialist, fakes his own death in order to play out a complex game with his friends and family — said millionaire immigrant industrialist disguises himself, for part of the game, as a union organizer fired by Westing. The character is far and away the most congenial persona Westing takes on during the course of his charade: the others are an obsequious property manager and a chilly corporate whiz, and we never get much of a sense of what Westing himself must have been like. As a millionaire, he’s secretive, isolated, and disconnected from everyone but the doctor who helps him pull off the masquerade. We know, from a character who knew him when she was a child, that he can be mercilessly critical but generous to people he believes will succeed if they’re given a proper leg up. But as a working-class doorman, he’s allowed to be accessible, a metaphorical organizer in a way that he couldn’t be as an actual organizer. And of course, that character is a fiction, mooting the entire question of whether we’re supposed to think that Westing was wrong to bust the union, whether Westing regrets busting the union, and whether he was a good head of a company as well as a good man, which several characters later decide he was in the course of the game. The book leaves us with the very adult possibility that Westing was many people to many different people — readers have to decide what the sum of Westing’s parts means.

There’s also the question of diversity and affirmative action. The book is written in 1979, but it prefigures in some kinder, gentler ways, the anxieties that seem to have plagued Clarence Thomas’ tenure on the Supreme Court and his fear as a whole. One of the novel’s characters is a judge named J.J. Ford, who sort of seems like what Anita Hill might have turned out to be if the right-wing hadn’t decided to systematically decide to destroy her life: she’s black, single, and extremely accomplished. In the book, she’s paired up with Westing’s union organizer persona as part of the game that Westing’s set up. And without being aware of it, that pairing lets her work out her sense that Westing only mentored her and financed her education because he wanted a black female judge in his pocket, and her anxiety that she was never able to pay him back, freeing herself of her perceived debt to him. In disguise, Westing finds a way to tell her that he genuinely did like her and think she was deserving. It’s a rebuke to the idea that seems to fuel Thomas, that getting a little help along the way (though in this case, it’s financial aid rather than affirmative action) should be considered demeaning.

If the politics in The Westing Game are emotionally convoluted but sincere, they’re much clearer, and much funnier, in The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel). There’s one sequence in that novel where, after their mother has been accidentally arrested, an adopted set of twins hooks up with some Cesar Chavez-style grape boycotters and convince them to march on the women’s prison where she’s being held. It’s simultaneously a brutal satire of the tendency to cause-hop without much investigation or the attention span to cause real change, and an indictment of an unjust arrest. The novel’s set in a world where radicals and deeply establishment types can all coexist. It’s a secure sort of liberalism, one that isn’t afraid to make fun of itself when necessary, and that makes the novel worth reading even if the puzzle isn’t as fascinating or rewarding as The Westing Game‘s.

What’s refreshing about Raskin’s novels, though I wouldn’t have thought about it at the time, is that they acknowledge that children live in a political world — and that they know it. Policy isn’t something that mysteriously begins to affect you only when you turn 18 or 21. Children feel its effects, whether it’s a loss of parents to the criminal justice system or the sting of discrimination. And they don’t only experience it when they’re in explicitly political stories. Recognizing that shows children and young adults a respect they’re rarely accorded in fiction. Not everything has to be as big as myth for kids to see it, and understand.