Whirligig – Paul Fleischman (1998, Square Fish, Henry Holt and Company, New York)
This is one intense book, no kidding. But if you’re expecting an action-packed thrillride full of kick-butt Hunger Games-style shenanigans (although, given the title, you’d have to employ a HUGE stretch of imagination), you’d better go find yourself another book. And if you’re looking for mere vapid fluff, it would be best to try somewhere else as well…because Whirligig is a gorgeous, quiet, serious read that promotes thought and reflection.
Brent Bishop, a sixteen year old high school student, is doing whatever it takes to fit into his new social circle: his dad’s job/unhappy pursuit of the almighty dollar has meant many transfers to new cities, and Brent is desperate to work his way into the popular crowd and catch the eye of the most desirable girl in his class. Angry, troubled, seeking approval at any cost, Brent completely flies off the rails when he is publicly humiliated and rejected by his peers at a party, and he makes a fatal decision that will change everything, for himself and for an innocent victim, a girl he has never met.
Now, you do have to buy into the fact that as punishment for his crime, Brent has to travel to the four corners of the mainland United States and plant hand-constructed whirligigs (yeah, that ubiquitous garden art/child’s toy that has propellors and bits that move in the wind)…it does seem really weird, I know, but go with it. It’s worth it, I promise! Brent’s solo journey across the country and his construction of the whirligigs are part of his healing process, his reintegration (or perhaps, more likely, integration) into society, his spiritual eye-opener to humanity and what “belonging”really means. (Don’t be fearful of a preachy tone – there isn’t one. Not a whiff. This book is about what it’s like to be alive and breathing and interacting with 7 billion other humans – and demonstrating compassion and empathy as you go).
Although Brent is on his own intimate path of discovery, his whirligigs become important symbols for others, which takes up the rest of the book. Told in alternating chapters are the stories of four people whose lives are forever changed by the whirligigs Brent makes. These tales are set in the future, and the reader is never really clear about the specific timeline, but in some ways, I was more captivated by these four subplots than I was even with Brent’s story. The voices of each of the taletellers were so unique and perfectly captured, and I found myself wanting to hear more, both from them and from others influenced by the whirligigs, the ones whose stories never make it into the book. Immensely powerful and beautifully executed, Whirligig is truly food for the soul.
Related posts: The Hunger Games. 😉