Scholastic, 2018 352 pages
Two stories weave together to solve a mystery and heal a hurt from the past. Candice and her mother must move to Lambert, South Carolina for the summer to her deceased beloved grandmother's house. Her she befriends Brandon, a boy who is constantly bullied for being different. In the attic Candice discovers a letter sent to her grandmother with clues to a fortune left to the city of Lambert should the puzzle be solved. Grandma tried to solve the puzzle as city manager and was fired for her efforts. Now Candace and Brandon must track down the clues and dig up a painful chapter in the town’s history in order to set things right. Alternating chapters travel back to the 1950's when Lambert was segregated and Jim Crow laws were in effect. A historic secret tennis match between black and white players results in tragedy and drastic consequences. Lives are changed dramatically as a result, which leads to the current mystery and connects all of the main players by book's end.
A love letter to the Westing Game, Johnson draws upon this classic mystery for young people, while adding a layer of historic and social importance. I love a book with layers that come together by the end, such as Holes, and this is such a book. It is so satisfying once the book is closed and no threads are left dangling. Candace and Brandon are fully realized characters and their story alone would have been enough for a decent book. Johnson adds the plot from the past, creating a richer dimension and offering historic motivation for the hidden treasure. Readers will experience the Jim Crow south in all of its hateful glory and come to understand what life was like for those living through it and the tough decisions they had to make. Johnson also demonstrates that racism still exists today and also shows the struggle of kids (and adults) working out their sexual orientation, another current area of discrimination and misconception. The mystery itself is not truly solvable by the reader. Characters not previously introduced play a part and answers are discovered that cannot be worked out beforehand. This does not matter. The Westing Game is also like that and is fun to read and so satisfying that mystery readers won't care that they are discovering the answers right along with Candace and Brandon. In fact, since the reader is privy to the alternating backstory, we know more than our two puzzle solvers do. There are plenty of “ah-ha moments”, along with closure and redemption. So far this is my favorite book published this year and it is sure to win awards and land on reading lists.