John Irving

A Prayer for Owen Meany

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A Prayer for Owen Meany Summary

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Taking inspiration and character details from Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum, John Irving’s novel A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989) is a coming-of-age story whose themes concern religion, faith, and friendship.

The story opens in 1987. John Wheelwright lives in Canada and teaches English. A dedicated bachelor, John thinks often of his youth in New Hampshire. He remembers his best friend, Owen Meany, as the most unique boy he ever knew. He blames Owen for the death of his mother but also credits him with his faith in God.

In the 1950s, John and Owen lived in the town of Gravesend. John, being illegitimate, is not afforded the same high status as the rest of the wealthy Wheelwright family, and so, he easily spends time with the lower-class boys. Owen is a very small boy with a damaged larynx that makes him speak in a permanently high-pitched voice. John remembers lifting Owen up over his head in order to force him to speak.

As Owen and John work through their school days, John is impressed with Owen’s obvious intelligence. Owen prefers to spend time with John’s family. When John’s mother, who refuses to tell him who his father is, marries a man named Dan Needham, Dan works to gain both Owen and John’s trust. He gives the boys a stuffed toy of which Owen is particularly fond.

Although very small, Owen loves baseball and plays Little League. At a game, he hits a foul ball that strikes John’s mother in the head, killing her. Dan helps the boys remain friends despite this tragedy, and Owen tells John he is convinced that he is ‛God’s instrument.’ Owen participates in a school production of A Christmas Carol and believes he sees his own name and date of death on Ebeneezer Scrooge’s gravestone.

As the boys age, Owen becomes a respected member of the school community, writing a popular column for the school newspaper, and dating a much older girl, John’s cousin Hester. At Owen’s insistence, John and Owen spend a lot of time practicing a basketball trick play in which John lifts Owen over his head to dunk the ball, an illegal maneuver they call The Shot. Owen is doing well academically and is offered full scholarships to Yale and Harvard.

Owen is expelled from school because of his sarcastic attitude towards the headmaster. He enters the ROTC program at the University of New Hampshire, meaning he will go on active duty in Vietnam when he graduates. John and Hester both oppose the war and are horrified. Owen helps John evade the draft by injuring his hand. After graduation, Owen is assigned to duty in America accompanying deceased soldiers’ bodies home to their families, but reveals to John and Hester that he has had a dream in which he saves a group of Vietnamese children, dying in the attempt; he believes this will come to pass on the date he saw on the play tombstone in school. He intends to be sent in-country in order to fulfill his destiny, despite John and Hester’s attempts to talk him out of it.
The story leaps forward a few years to Owen’s funeral. Owen’s father reveals that he never had intercourse with Owen’s mother, and always regarded Owen as being a ‛Christ child’ as a result—something he told Owen when the boy was very young. A few years later, John discovers the identity of his father; he is disappointed to learn it is Reverend Lewis Merrill, who is married and very timid.

The story goes back in time to Owen’s preparations to go to Vietnam. As the date grows near, John visits him and accompanies Owen as he brings a body to a family. The family is contemptuous of the military, and the dead soldier’s brother, Dick, rants against the Vietnamese, stating his intention to join the army himself so he can go kill as many Vietnamese as possible.

At the airport, Owen tells John that he has accepted that his vision was only a dream, as this is the date he saw and yet, he is nowhere near Vietnam. Just then, a large group of Vietnamese orphans arrives at the airport in the charge of some nuns, and as they find themselves in a room with the children, Owen recognizes his vision. Dick is there as well, intending to murder the children with a hand grenade his brother had smuggled home from Vietnam. He throws the grenade into the room. John catches the grenade, and then he and Owen perform The Shot to throw the grenade out the window to save the children. Owen is badly injured when the grenade explodes at the last moment. As he lays dying, he comforts the children and tells John he is satisfied that he has performed the task God set out for him.
John believes that Owen was indeed a special person—a miracle—and ends his story with a plea to God to bring Owen back.