" . . . The world itself was a whirligig, its myriad parts twist invisibly linked, the hidden crankshafts and connecting rods carrying motion across the globe and over the centuries . . . "
Whirligigs. What remarkable things they are! They're artistic creations, often of original design, which remain dormant and silent until something unseen and unexpected causes change and action. In a way they are a metaphor for life. That metaphor appears to be the underlying idea in Fleischman's new novel and the change and action is caused by death.Cynthia Rylant's "Missing May" (1993 Newbery Winner) also used that comparison when the whirligigs were called Mysteries representing thunderstorms, heaven, fire, love, dreams and death.
The plot of Fleischman's "Whirligigs" begins with Brent, a tormented teenager, vying for popularity and recognition, especially from beautiful Brianna. But everything he does makes him seem more of a misfit in the community to which he has recently moved. He finds himself a pawn and the other kids like kings in the chess game of life. His actions are powered by his tantrums and hair-triggered responses. He talks to himself, "There's no need to feel pain. You've already felt enough . . . You have absolute power over your own life . . . You have the power to end your life . . . "
The power backfires. Brent is the cause of an automobile accident and the death of a young girl.
This is not a novel about injury, anger or even wrongdoing, although there is plenty of all three in the story. The theme of "Whirligigs" is the penalty put upon Brent by the dead girl's mother, "This is my only request. That you make four whirligigs, of a girl that looks like Lea . . . Set them up in Washington, California, Florida and Maine . . . Let people all over the country receive joy from her even though she's gone . . . "
For 45 days, Brent does build the whirligigs and learns something about himself and life in the process. In intermittent chapters people who see Brent's creations are changed somewhat, too. Two teenagers in Weeksboro, Maine, use the site of the whirligig as an adventure into communication and life. A Puerto Rican immigrant in Miami builds a family in the shadow of one of the whirligigs and a student in Bellevue, Wash., finds out that he, too, doesn't have to be the best. A grandmother-granddaughter scenario is a backdrop for the fourth whirligig in San Diego, Calif.
Fleischman reaches below the surface of this calamity of death, tragic as it is, with the notion that there is a cycle and movement of life that is like the propeller blades of one part of the whirligig that "would pass its motion to the others."
"Whirligigs" is a tightly written story with all the fine craftsmanship that this author displays in his other award-winning works, including "I Am Phoenix" and "Joyful Noise" (collections of poems for two voices, the latter of which was the Newbery Medal winner), and "Bull Run," an account of the Civil War battle, winner of the Scott O'Dell Award.