Whirligig Summary and Study Guide

Paul Fleischman


  • 39-page comprehensive study guide
  • Features an extended summary and 5 sections of expert analysis
  • Written by a literary scholar with a degree from Columbia
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Whirligig Summary and Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 39-page guide for “Whirligig” by Paul Fleischman includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like The Far-Reaching and Unknowable Consequences of Actions and Materialism as Unfulfilling.

Plot Summary

Whirligig, by Paul Fleischman, is a 1998 YA novel about a 17-year-old boy named Brent Bishop who goes on a cross-country journey of atonement. At the outset of the novel, Brent’s family has recently moved to Chicago following his father’s promotion at work—the fourth time the family has moved. Brent has struggled to fit in and make friends at each new school he’s attended. He tries to win approval from his classmates by wearing trendy clothes, listening to the popular music, and lying about his family’s affluence. Like his parents, his main preoccupations are appearances, material goods, and social status.

Brent goes to a party at the house of a rich, popular classmate where he gets drunk, in order to quell his insecurities. When he tries to talk to Brianna, who is likewise rich and popular, she rejects him loudly in front of a crowd. Humiliated and angry, Brent gets into his car and drives onto the freeway. He closes his eyes and takes his hands off the wheel, trying to kill himself. Brent survives, but he causes a crash that kills 18-year-old Lea Zamora.

Afterward, Brent is depressed, wracked by guilt, and tells no one about his suicide attempt. The court sentences him to probation and to a meeting with Lea’s family to discuss restitution. At the meeting, Lea’s mother describes a whirligig that Lea’s grandfather built in her likeness. She tells Brent that she wants him to build whirligigs in Washington, California, Florida, and Maine to memorialize Lea. She gives him a bus ticket.

On his journey, Brent undergoes a transformation. Inspired by people he meets along the way, he begins to value self-sufficiency and makes an effort to acquire new skills and interests. Building the whirligigs teaches him the value of perseverance while his solitude gives him a new perspective on fitting in among a community.

Alternating chapters of Whirligig are first-person narratives that portray the encounters of the disparate people with Brent’s whirligigs. The first is a 13-year-old girl named Steph in Weeksboro, Maine. Steph, who is interested in science, is highly logical. Showing her the whirligig, her best friend Alexandra convinces her to believe in the power of visualization and the existence of “unseen forces” (32). In Washington, a fifth-grader named Anthony comes across Brent’s harp-player whirligig while camping with his family. Anthony’s mother, who pressures him to excel, uses the whirligig as a symbol of the value of practice. After Anthony has a disastrous violin recital, his mother agrees to let him quit and the whirligig comes to represent the concept of rest. In Florida, an unnamed Puerto Rican street-sweeper living under financial duress and his noisy, discordant family goes on a drive looking for peace and quiet. Seeing Brent’s whirligig of a marching band, he realizes that “people are always in a groupand whenever there’s a group, there’s fighting” (62). The last narrator is a girl named Jenny who goes for a drive with her dying grandmother, an Auschwitz survivor, who points out the whirligig to her as a symbol of the good that exists in the world.

After he puts up his last whirligig in Maine, Brent comes to terms with his guilt and admits for the first time that he tried to kill himself. He attends a contradance where he feels himself accepted back into society. With several weeks left on his bus ticket, he decides to keep traveling, building whirligigs, and learning about the natural world.

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