Whirligig Summary

Paul Fleischman


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Whirligig Summary

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In Whirligig by Paul Fleishman, 17-year-old Brent Bishop learns to accept himself, take responsibility for his actions, and to understand how the repercussions from both good and bad choices reverberate through his life, and every life his life touches. A traditional coming-of-age novel, or bildungsroman, Whirligig also expresses a quest motif: as Brent moves through the world and engages with the new people he meets, he comes to understand himself and his interconnectedness with the world.

Privileged, but self-centered and angry, Brent wants nothing more than to impress the popular crowd at his new private Chicago-area high school, Monfort. A succession of moves, as his father has climbed the corporate ladder, have left Brent perpetually starting over, insecure, isolated, and with something to prove. He believes that his life will be prefect, if only he wears the right clothes, drives the most fashionable car, or dates the coolest girl. He attends a party, where he gets drunk and is rejected by the girl he likes. Then, he humiliates himself further by punching the boy who hosted the party. Full of self-pity and rage, Brent gets into his car and decides to kill himself.

However, Brent kills someone else when he takes his hands off the wheel of his car—18-year-old Lea Zamora, a star-student and athlete, a lovely, giving, and mature young woman. Brent’s driver’s license is taken away, and he is given probation rather than a sentence in a detention center by the judge of his case, but he is disappointed. He wanted a more severe punishment. Filled with remorse and guilt, he meets with Lea’s mother during a court-appointed restitution meeting to try to atone for his mistake.

Lea’s mother does not believe in retribution. Instead, she tells Brent about Lea: her zest for life, her beautiful smile, and her love for whirligigs. She asks Brent to build four whirligigs with her daughter’s name and face on them and to place one at each corner of the United States—in Washington, California, Florida, and Maine—in honor of her daughter’s memory and to keep her spirit alive. Brent agrees, against his parents’ wishes, and accepts Mrs. Zamora’s 45-day Greyhound bus pass. Filling his backpack with a book on building whirligigs, plywood, tools, camping equipment, and his guilt, he heads for Washington.

Brent travels to each corner of the United States, constructing whirligigs, each one more elaborate than the last. As Brent travels, he begins to understand himself. He learns to appreciate the simple pleasures of life, such as reading a book. He begins to feel a connection to the rest of the world and becomes less self-centered and immature. He shares his terrible secret with a painter he meets, releasing some of his burden of shame. He begins to grow up.

In alternating chapters, Fleishman flashes forward in time in the reverse order of Brent’s journey, telling the stories of the lives of the people deeply moved and affected by seeing the whirligigs. The people who need the whirligigs encounter them.

When Brent places the last whirligig at an artist’s home in Maine, he feels that he can face his future in Chicago; though his guilt is still there, it no longer cripples him. He understands that by taking responsibility for his past that he can take control of his future. The theme of restitution and punishment enacted in this novel creates redemption in the form of maturity and independence. Without knowing it at first, Brent’s actions in accepting Mrs. Zamora’s request for restitution speak to the maturity that he yearned for and his desire to be a better person than he was. Nothing can make up for the loss of Lea’s life, but Brent can atone by living his own life the best he can and by appreciating the value of his life.