My niece sent me this novel recently because she’d heard of it through her students and thought I might find it interesting both as a reading project and potential art project inspiration for my son. She was right on both counts! This is a short YA novel from 1998 about a young man who learns that “actions have consequences,” a message displayed on the book’s cover. While we have all heard that (or said it) at some time, usually as a warning against dangerous or risky pursuits, this novel goes further. Yes, poor choices have consequences, but so do all of our choices, and we are more than just our mistakes.
Brent Bishop is 17 and a high school student in Chicago. He has moved with his family several times and tries very hard to fit in at school, embellishing his life story as necessary to win positive attention. We learn very quickly that Brent is dealing with anger issues and depression. After a very public and humiliating embarrassment at a class party, Brent makes a disastrous choice which will have repercussions far beyond his own life. Whirligig in each of its chapters demonstrates these consequences both for Brent and for people whom he will never meet or know.
When my niece gave me this book, she told me that one of the things she really liked about it was that it gave attention to the concept of “restorative justice.” Restorative justice revolves around the idea that those who commit crimes meet with victims and other community members to learn what impact their actions have had and perhaps find a way to make amends; it emphasizes empathy and responsibility. After Brent’s big mistake, he travels around the US as part of his atonement, and at various points along the way, he creates and leaves behind whirligigs. The reasons for his journey and for the whirligigs are explained beautifully in the story. Brent wants to be punished, knowing that he can never replace what his actions have taken from this world. Yet along the way, Brent experiences a rebirth. He learns patience and humility; he also learns to craft better and better whirligigs, how to play a harmonica and how to read the stars. For each whirligig that Brent leaves, author Fleischman provides a story of someone who interacts with it and how it influences their life. Brent has not just caused an irreparable harm by his past action; he has also, without knowing, made a positive difference for many others.
By spending this journey alone, in his thoughts and work, Brent understands better how to connect to others and how to live with himself, with both the good and the bad. At the end of the story, the reader knows that Brent will forever be effected by his teenaged mistake but that he has also gained maturity and developed skills to help him move forward and live a better life. This was a nice way to start a new year following a disastrous year that was full of mistakes. This book would be a good family read and is certainly appropriate for the younger readers in the house (age 12 and older).