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Whirligig Paul Fleischman Essay Outline

AuthorPaul Fleischman
CountryUnited States

Publication date

May 15, 1998
Pages133 pages

Whirligig is a 1998 novel by Paul Fleischman. It is about a teenager who builds a Whirligig in each of the corners of the United States in order to pay restitution (and to find redemption for himself) after he kills another person, by accident, in a suicide attempt by car crash.[1]


Seventeen-year-old Brent Bishop has moved with his parents in Chicago, Illinois. He goes to a party in an attempt to fit in and become popular. He decides to talk to Brianna, a popular girl at the party. She tells him to stop bothering her and to leave her alone. The entire group hears this. Chaz, the party host, mocks him for his actions at the party. Angered, Brent retaliates and then drives away and tries to kill himself by crashing his car. He crashes into a car being driven by a girl named Lea Zamora. Lea dies in the crash; however, Brent survives the crash. Instead of a conventional prison sentence, Brent agrees to a form of restitution chosen by Lea's mother. Lea's mother tells Brent to build and place four whirligigs at each corner of the Contiguous United States in order to memorialize and carry on Lea's philanthropic ideals. Brent agrees to this, as he feels guilty for his actions. He receives a bus pass and supplies to help him build his whirligigs.

When Brent arrives at Bellevue, Washington he starts to make his first whirligig, a harpist. There, he meets a cyclist who plays Go, who teaches him about the movement of life. In San Diego, California, Brent wanted to stay at a hostel but they tell him that only foreign travelers can stay there. Brent lies, saying that he's from Canada. He meets a foreign student named Emil at the hostel. Before leaving San Diego, he makes his second whirligig, a mermaid. In Miami, Florida, he ponders the concepts of religion. With the help of some children on the beach, Brent makes his penultimate whirligig, a marching band. His last whirligig was built in Weeksboro, Maine, a model of Lea Zamora which spun its arms in the wind. After that he meets a female painter who realizes Brent's problems and helps him, allowing him to finally realize he was free. He decides to place a whirligig in every state, eventually face his parents and Lea's mother again, and starting at a new school.

The whirligigs left behind impact the lives of other people that come across them long after Brent has left that area of the United States. They include a girl named Steph from Weeksboro who wants a boyfriend, a Puerto Rican street sweeper nicknamed Flaco in Miami looking for quiet time, a Korean boy named Anthony in Bellevue who is desperate to play baseball, and a girl named Jenny in San Diego worried about her grandmother


The novel alternates the perspective of the narration every chapter. Among these are Brent, whose perspective takes up every other chapter starting with Chapter 1. In the other chapters, Anthony, Jenny, Flaco and Steph are introduced. They are all profoundly impacted by the whirligigs left behind by Brent.


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Whirligig Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics.  This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of Whirligig by Paul Fleischman.

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.