‘What’s a Whirligig?’
It’s the most common question I’m asked when discussing my novel, right up there with ‘What’s it about?’ and ‘How many have you sold?’ I often feel I make hard work of the answer, giving a longwinded and rather literary answer.
I usually start with my ‘eureka’ moment in the Chicago Institute of Art where I found a wonderful piece of 19th century folk art (see, you are already fighting the urge to run), a chin high tower of cogs and sails painted in red, white and blue. Then I explain how as I drove down through Illinois, Kentucky and Tennessee, I saw the same patriotic impulse, albeit in different forms, repeated a thousand times on billboards, above front porches and in the names of gas-stations, carwashes and burger-bars. It got me wondering how America and the Union were perceived at the time of the Civil War, and how the war might have shaped modern attitudes to America. It was something I wanted to explore thematically in the book, albeit as secondary to the story. So I invented the Whirligig man as an eponymous character who took his piece of folk art from town to town and fair to fair and collected pennies for people to see it. It acts as a metaphor for America, both then and now. Cele, a little slave girl, wants to know if the Whirligig is happy.
Cele, pleased to be part of the show, moved over to the [Whirligig] man. ‘Is it happy now?’ she asked. ‘How can you tell?’
'That’s an intelligent question, little miss.’ He went to Cele and bent low, putting both hands on his knees. ‘Happiness is at the root of it, wouldn’t you say? Mostly, though, it likes to be busy; that’s how to tell. When the windmills are spinning so fast that the colors blur and the bells are good and loud, that’s when I think it’s happy.’
By this point, most people who have asked me about the name are thinking they might just buy a Dan Brown, or that they haven’t read Fifty Shades yet. It’s all come to mind because this week I heard from a retired American Major who is reading Whirligig. He wrote to me about this very part of the book in which the American flag, floating about a town square in Eastern Tennessee, is fired upon and the mayor is forced to lower it. Subsequently (minor spoiler alert) the Whirligig is smashed to pieces, leaving its owner destitute. I wanted it to be metaphorical of the American Union being smashed and broken at the outbreak of the war, but as with all metaphors, you’re never quite sure if it’s clear enough. The firing on and lowering of the flag in Cleveland, Tennessee, is a true event, the Whirligig man my own fiction. My American major confessed to being deeply moved by both.
This was a source of deep, deep satisfaction for me: that without any explanation on my part, for this American, the scene connected the patriotism and love of country that exists today with the tragedy of a hundred and fifty years ago. The abolition of slavery was the lasting and most meaningful outcome of the war, but for most soldiers on both sides, at least at the war’s outset, the issue was the Union itself and its continued existence or destruction. There are so many echoes of disunion today in my own county, both internal and external. The parallels fascinate and sometimes frighten me.
From a commercial point of view, I probably should have called the book ‘Blood in the West’ (actually that’s not bad!) or ‘River of Death’, but for me there’s so much tied up in my Whirligig, so many connections to different events and feelings, that I’m happy I picked it.
‘As on this Whirligig of time, we circle with the seasons.’ Alfred, Lord Tennyson'