Fiction, Young Adult

Whirligig, by Paul Fleischman


When I came to the end of Whirligig, a book I listened to on Overdrive’s audio app, I was surprised to learn that it was published 20 years ago. Why? Because the protagonist, Brent Bishop, is the poster child for the modern depressed teen. Despite a privileged upbringing, he has no sense of identity, no hobbies or skills, and measures his self-worth against the yardstick of popularity. Life has no real purpose and he is connected to no one and nothing.

It’s a sad way to live, but when you meet Brent’ parents, who drift forward through life in much the same way, the person he is becoming makes more sense. As such, Brent is an unhappy person, but when all of your energy goes towards yourself, it is any wonder?

The themes of the book are connection, redemption, and self-discovery. Unfortunately, it takes a horrible tragedy to put Brent on the path to these things. A life with much promise is snuffed out due to his selfishness and, as restitution, he must take a journey around the country, building and placing four whirligigs in honor of the life he carelessly took. Suddenly he is compelled to create, to interact, to observe, and most importantly, to think of others and how we’re all part of a larger plan.

Yesterday, two-thirds into the book, I read a cynical review on Goodreads from a woman who was appalled at the book’s message, which she interpreted as an “angsty teenage boy” using the death of someone else “as motivation for their own self-discovery.” And, while there may be some truth to this, I see most of Brent’s angst as a result of his upbringing. Little of his parents’ energy has gone into teaching him to care, to love, to show compassion for others, or to do anything really worth-while. Until he’s forced to do something for someone else, he merely exists. It’s a sad commentary on the way so many people live, perpetuating that purposeless state through their children.

The book is far from flawless, but it has heart. Aimed at teenage readers, it’s core message is one you hope they will recognize, learn from, and carry into the future.

8/10 Stars


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