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Book Review

This book has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine.

Positive Elements

Spiritual Content

Sexual Content

Violent Content

Crude or Profane Language

Drug and Alcohol Content

Other Negative Elements

Conclusion

Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

Johnny Wheelwright tells his story in a nonlinear memoir format. He begins by saying he will always remember Owen Meany. It’s not because he was so small and his voice so strange, and not because Owen was instrumental in killing his mother. Johnny will remember him because Owen is the reason he is a Christian.

Johnny recalls how everyone in Gravesend, New Hampshire, was fascinated by Owen’s small size. Johnny’s mother, Tabitha, had Johnny out of wedlock and refused to tell anyone the name of his father. She used to ride a train into Boston once a week for singing lessons and spent the night in the city. She claimed to have met Johnny’s father on the train. She promised to tell Johnny his father’s identity when he was old enough, but she died before doing so, when he was 11. Owen is convinced that God will one day reveal his father’s name.

Johnny and his mother lived with his Grandmother Harriet, who claimed Owen’s voice could make dead mice come back to life. Johnny describes his friend Owen as having a strange and irritating voice.

Johnny recalls the day of his mother’s death. She had arrived at the last inning of his and Owen’s Little League game. The coach uncharacteristically allowed Owen to bat. Owen fouled the ball over the fence, hitting Tabitha in the temple and killing her instantly. Owen was devastated, since he loved Johnny’s mother. He cried out his apology before running home. Someone put a coat over Johnny’s head so he couldn’t see her body, but he could hear the chief of police asking where the murder weapon went. Johnny suspected Owen took the ball home.

Johnny met his stepfather, Dan Needham, when he was 6. Tabitha announced at the dinner table that she’d met another man on the train. After assuring her mother that she wasn’t pregnant, she said Dan was interviewing for a position at the Gravesend Academy. Dan gave Johnny a paper bag and asked him to keep an eye on it, but not to open it. If it moved, Johnny should call him. Johnny finally opened the bag to find a stuffed armadillo. Dan had used it as a prop for one of his classes. Dan gave the animal to Johnny.

Johnny and his mother visited his aunt in Sawyer Depot twice a year. Johnny’s cousins Simon, Noah and Hester are rough and athletic. Although Owen desperately wanted to visit Sawyer Depot, Johnny was afraid his cousins would accidently kill the small boy. Owen is eventually able to meet the cousins. They play a game in which Hester hides in their grandmother’s closet and the boys have to find her before she grabs their penises. When Owen goes into the closet, Hester tickles him. That scares him, so he wets himself. He runs home, but Johnny and his mother drive after him and bring him back. The cousins do not belittle him, and they all become friends.

The day after Tabitha’s death, Owen’s father drives him to Johnny’s house. Owen gives Johnny his prize collection of baseball cards. Johnny asks Dan what he should do with them. Dan explains that by giving Johnny his cards, Owen is trying to give something special to Johnny since he has taken someone special away. He suggests that Johnny give Owen something special to show that he still wanted to be friends. Dan is touched when Johnny says that his only prize possession is his armadillo. Dan convinces Johnny to give the animal to Owen and assures him that Owen will return it.

When Owen returns it, the animal no longer has its front legs. Dan explains that Owen is trying to show how each of them lost something vital when Johnny’s mother died. Later, Johnny learns that Owen was explaining that God had taken his hands since they had caused Tabitha’s death.

Johnny now lives in Toronto, Canada. Obsessed with newspaper headlines, he begins a diatribe about America’s current political system under Ronald Regan. He recalls Regan as a governor at the start of the Vietnam War and then describes how Owen always understood the many sides of the war while he, Johnny, understood little. He says that it was Owen Meany who kept him from going to Vietnam. Although Owen may have killed his mother, he gave Johnny far more in return.

Four years after they began dating, Dan Needham and Tabitha Wheelwright finally got married. They were wed in the chapel at the Academy and both the Rev. Merrill of the Congregationalist church and the Rev. Wiggin of the Episcopal church presided. Tabitha’s funeral a year later took place at the same location.

The Christmas following Tabitha’s death, Dan directs the annual production of A Christmas Carol. He casts Owen as the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. At the last performance, Owen faints when his character points to Scrooge’s grave. He later tells Johnny that he saw his own name on the grave. When Johnny asks about the date on the stone, Owen lies and says he didn’t see it.

After working a summer in his family’s quarry, Owen grows strong. Once he attends the Academy (high school), Owen thrives. His sarcasm and way with words earn him the nickname “The Voice.” But Owen’s newspaper commentaries begin to upset the headmaster, Mr. White.

Meanwhile, Owen insists that Johnny help him perfect a layup in basketball. It requires that Johnny lift Owen up to the basket. Owen is adamant that they keep practicing until they get “the shot” down to less than four seconds.

The tension between Mr. White and Owen escalates. When a student is caught buying alcohol with a fake ID that Owen provided, Owen is expelled. Owen steals the granite statue of Mary Magdalene from the Catholic church and removes its arms and head. He places it where the students and faculty gather for morning chapel. Before being fired from the school, Mr. White makes sure that Owen’s college scholarships to Harvard and Yale are rescinded. Owen attends the University of New Hampshire on an ROTC scholarship.

Johnny and Owen start college together. Owen concentrates on his ROTC training, insisting that he wants to go to Vietnam. Owen and Johnny’s cousin Hester, who have been dating since high school, move in together. Eventually Owen tells Johnny that he’d had a reoccurring dream in which he died in the arms of a nun after saving a group of Vietnamese children.

He is convinced that it is his destiny to die in Vietnam, but he is assigned to a noncombat station in Arizona. He accompanies the bodies of fallen soldiers home to their families. When Johnny is ordered to report for an Army physical, Owen tells him to do nothing until he arrives home on leave. Owen gets Johnny drunk and cuts off Johnny’s right index finger so he wouldn’t be drafted.

In the final chapter, Johnny discusses Owen’s funeral. He visits the Rev. Merrill to discuss Owen. The reverend suddenly cries out in Owen’s voice, ordering Johnny to look in a desk drawer. As if possessed, the reverend pulls out the baseball that killed Johnny’s mother and admits to being his father.

Owen had asked Johnny to visit him in Phoenix while he was detained because of a military mix-up with the body of a soldier. Owen’s diary reveals that he was confused because he knew he was to die saving Vietnamese children soon, but he was not in Vietnam. Johnny and Owen meet the soldier’s dysfunctional family, including his 15-year-old half-brother, Dick, who was intent on killing the Viet Cong.

Johnny and Owen spend the rest of their time together drinking and reminiscing. As they wait at the airport for his plane, Owen spies several nuns and Vietnamese children. One of the nuns asks them to accompany the boys to the restroom. They do. Dick bursts into the bathroom, screaming that he will use these children as practice for Vietnam. Owen gets the kids to lie down before Dick throws a grenade into the bathroom.

Owen reminds Johnny of “the shot.” Johnny catches the grenade, throws it to Owen and then lifts Owen up to a recessed window where he covers it with his arms. The grenade explodes and the children are saved. Owen’s arms are blown off and he dies in the arms of a nun, just as he’d foreseen. Johnny ends by saying Owen’s life and death are what convinced him there is indeed a God. He prays every day that God will return his friend to him.

Christian Beliefs

The novel opens with a quote from Philippians 4:6. Frederick Buechner is also quoted. He describes how God cannot fully reveal himself to man because that would leave no doubt. And if a person has no doubt, there is no room for himself. A final quote by Leon Bloy states that all Christians need to live a heroic life or they are animals.

The entire book is filled with Christian motifs and various arguments for, and against, the Christian faith. Johnny tells the reader in the opening lines about his Christian walk, from Congregationalist to Episcopalian and then to the Anglican church. But it is his friendship with Owen, and Owen’s life and eventual sacrifice, which give Johnny the faith to believe in God.

Johnny describes the type of funeral he would like, including quotes from John 11:6 and 14:2, and 1 Timothy 6:7. Johnny describes the Sunday school class in which the teacher would read a Bible passage and then leave the room so the children could ponder what they’d heard. Instead, he and others would regularly pick up Owen and carry him over their heads.

Johnny describes Owen’s patient suffering through this ritual as the best example of a martyr. Johnny’s ancestor, the Reverend John Wheelwright, had been a minister of the English church before converting to Puritanism and leaving England for the new world. He was later banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for questioning the location of the Holy Ghost.

As a child, Owen was convinced God would reveal Johnny’s father to him, because he knew the man couldn’t hide his sin from God. Owen’s family came to the Episcopal church after a dispute with the Catholic church. Catholicism is held in contempt by Owen throughout the book, but the reason isn’t revealed until the end when Mr. Meany explains that he failed to convince the priests that Owen had been another virgin birth.

Owen explains to Johnny that Catholics kneel and pray throughout the service, much more than the Episcopalians, and that he resented the Catholic practice of confession. It disturbed him because people can pray to God directly.

Johnny describes Owen’s mother, who always sat by the window. After Tabitha’s death, and Owen’s symbolic response to it, Johnny begins to consider the idea that a person may be born for a divine purpose. He quotes from Jeremiah 1. Owen was convinced that because his hands had caused Tabitha’s death, God had taken his hands and would use them for His purpose.

One night, before Tabitha’s death, Owen believes he saw the angel of death in her room. Later, he would believe that he had interrupted the angel’s work and upset God’s plan, which was why he eventually became the instrument of Tabitha’s death. Johnny describes the differences between the Rev. Dudley Wiggin of the Episcopal church and the Rev. Lewis Merrill of the Congregationalists. Wiggin was a former airplane pilot and was an enthusiastic speaker who left no room for doubt in his theology. Merrill, on the other hand, although having chosen a religious life much earlier, seemed full of doubt. He considered doubt to be the essence of faith. Wiggin liked passages comparing life to a battle, as in Ephesians 5. Both the reverends presided over Tabitha and Dan’s wedding, which Johnny describes in detail, and her funeral. The service ends with the hymn “Crown Him with Many Crowns.”

Prayers asking for God’s blessing are said. Johnny recalls various snippets of Bible verses quoted from Corinthians, John and Colossians. An entire chapter of the book is dedicated to the Episcopal church’s Christmas pageant in which Owen plays the baby Jesus. The biblical story is quoted throughout. Much is made of how Owen’s presence adds a sense of awe to those who view it, even after he breaks character to chastise his parents for coming. Owen quotes John 11:5 at a dog’s funeral. He later says it to the nuns as he dies. He once said that if you don’t believe in Easter, you can’t call yourself a Christian.

In a scathing editorial, Owen laments required church attendance as a futile attempt to make hormonal teenagers accept religion. It only prejudiced them against the church. He also rails against the dining hall’s serving only fish on Fridays in deference to the Catholics.

Owen is so taken with Kennedy that he quotes Isaiah 9:2. Owen teaches Johnny about faith when he questions him about the statue of Mary at the Catholic church. At dusk, the statue could not be seen from the basketball court. Owen would question Johnny about whether the statue was still there: When Johnny would insist that it was, Owen would ask how he knew. Johnny would become belligerent, yelling that the statue was there because he knew it was always there. One day, after repeating this conversation again, Owen finally explains that he feels the same way about God. He can’t see Him, but he knows He’s always there.

Throughout the book, Owen is convinced that he has been ordained by God for a special purpose. As the years progress, he believes that the reoccurring dream he has of somehow saving a number of Vietnamese children is his destiny. In the end, the reader discovers Owen was right.

An older Johnny reviews the Beatitudes and questions the validity of the promises Jesus made in them. Older Johnny laments how families behave in church with undisciplined children who don’t want to attend and parents who only come to pick up their children and otherwise don’t attend. He also discusses how different priests dispense Communion. He recounts the Easter service at his church.

Other Belief Systems

Johnny believes when his neighbor named his dog “Sagamore” after a nearby lake, he offended the spirits of the Native Americans, as the name was used for their leaders. He thought the dog being run over by a diaper truck was their retribution. Although a devout Christian, Owen believes, as the Native Americans did, that all things have a soul and that people and nature are connected by their different spirits.

At his mother’s wedding, Johnny wonders why neither reverend quoted a blessing from Tobit, a book in the Catholic Bible. Every year, Dan Needham puts on the play A Christmas Carol. Although redemptive in nature, the play uses ghosts to direct the main character back to a godly life.

A character named Germaine believes in the supernatural and omens in the world around her. She thought Owen’s voice was from Satan, not God. On the day of his performance in the Christmas pageant, Owen asks to have a scarf Tabitha made for him wrapped around his neck for good luck.

After Owen’s death, Hester begins a career in alternative music. She sometimes wears a crucifix as a nose ring. Owen tells Johnny that the author Thomas Hardy was a man who searched for God, but ultimately rejected Him, becoming bitter. Owen said that Hardy believed only in the helplessness of fate.

Johnny brings his mother’s old dress dummy to Owen so he can attach the arms of the Mary Magdalene statue to it. He places it in the garden outside the Congregational church. It is at night, so only a faint light from the church illuminates the figure. Johnny then throws the fated baseball through one of the church’s windows.

When the Rev. Merrill comes outside and sees the figure, he thinks it’s Tabitha’s ghost, sent from the grave because he’d promised to never reveal his identity to Johnny. The apparition causes him to admit that it was Owen’s voice, speaking through him, which made him admit the truth. This act of admitting a miracle restores his faith. Johnny also believes Owen’s spirit saved him from falling down a flight of stairs in his grandmother’s house.

Authority Roles

Many adults play influential roles in Johnny’s life. His mother is idealized as perfect, caring and loved by everyone. Although she had Johnny out of wedlock, he never felt she regretted her decision to keep him. His adopted father, Dan Needham, is loving and supportive, always willing to listen and give advice, even though he has technically been Johnny’s father for less than a year before Tabitha dies. Johnny’s grandmother is strict and stubborn but caring.

The authority figures outside of Johnny’s home lack good character. The Rev. Merrill is full of doubt. The Rev. Wiggin is overbearing and legalistic. The new headmaster, Mr. White, is concerned only with the bottom line, maintaining appearances and having control over the students.

Profanity/Violence

The book is written for adults and uses much profanity throughout its dialogue. The f-word is used in various tenses. It is also combined with Jesus Christ, you, face and fussy. Bulls---, b--ch and d--n are spoken. S--- is is also paired with dumb. A-- is used alone and with smart and tight. God’s name is used in vain alone and withd--n forbid and sake. Christ is used alone and with sake. Other objectionable words are pee, pr-ck, sucked, sucker, p---, balls, fart, whore, p-ckerhead, p---y, crap and fags.

Owen’s voice is graphically described as sounding like dead mice, who having had their necks snapped in traps are coming back to life. One of Johnny’s Little League friends is killed in Vietnam by a poisonous snake while relieving himself outside of a whorehouse. Another teammate is killed by driving into an abutment of a railroad bridge.

A neighbor’s dog is killed by a diaper truck. A boy is thrown out of the Academy for hanging the faculty’s cats. Owen fights a bully on the beach. Although he is punched several times, he breaks the other boy’s pinky, snapping the bone so it points backward. Johnny’s cousin Simon cuts himself with a logging tool. It leaves a large gash in his calf. While waiting in the emergency room for stitches, the boys see an accident victim who had been drinking and driving. A beer bottle cut the roof of his mouth and his lips, and it punctured a hole in his cheek.

Hester beats Owen up on the floor of their apartment, giving him a bloody nose and splitting his lip. Owen’s job in the military requires that he accompany the bodies of fallen soldiers. He describes how the head has to be higher than the feet or fluids will leak out. Owen cuts off Johnny’s index finger with the diamond wheel in the granite shop. Johnny describes seeing the blood spatter on Owen’s safety goggles. The injuries Owen sustains from the grenade are described in detail. Both his arms are severed below the elbow. Johnny describes the skin left hanging and the vast amounts of blood lost, covering the nun holding Owen.

Kissing/Sex/Homosexuality

Johnny recalls kissing a girl and getting his lip caught in her braces. When Johnny loses a game with his cousins, he is forced to kiss Hester with an open mouth. She claims to have felt his erection when they kissed. Johnny hints that he enjoyed kissing her. Hester kisses Owen after he gets stitches from her beating.

Owen talks frankly with Johnny about Tabitha’s breasts, claiming that she has the best breasts of all the mothers. Although modest in cut, Tabitha liked to wear tight sweaters to accentuate her figure. Owen calls Johnny’s mother sexy, saying he often forgets she’s a mother.

Noah and Simon claim that Hester has had sex with all their friends. Johnny talks about a teacher at the Academy who enjoys catching boys breaking the rules, including masturbating. A wife of one of the teachers is the object of lust for many of the boys. Her husband would bring her into class to demonstrate breastfeeding to the biology students.

Owen and Johnny spend one Christmas vacation going through the various dorm rooms of the Academy, finding hidden pornography and other illicit items. Johnny describes in detail some of the pictures. Owen wonders how anyone can be happy when all they think about is sex. When they find a condom in one boy’s room, they take turns trying it on. They must hide when a married couple decides to have sex in one of the boy’s rooms while the students are on vacation. Johnny hides in the closet and Owen under the bed. The motion of the bouncing bed springs nearly squashes Owen. The couple’s passionate cries are mentioned.

Mrs. Wiggin, the reverend’s wife, torments Owen by rubbing his cheeks while he is stuck in his swaddling clothes as the Baby Jesus. She then bends over him and kisses him passionately on the lips, causing Owen to get an erection. Johnny describes his lustful thoughts about his grandmother’s nurse. His desires also give him an erection, but he doesn’t act on them.

It is hinted that Hester had an affair with a Jamaican boatman while the family vacationed there. After an Academy dance, several boys are disciplined for inappropriately touching their dates or kissing them. Many of the boys believe Hester and Owen have had sex, but Owen neither confirms nor denies it. Her brothers insist she must have because she has sex with everyone. Johnny is jealous of Owen’s possible sexual relationship with Hester.

Older Johnny discusses the romantic tryst of Senator Gary Hart. He also talks about the sexual encounter of a character in Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Larry Lish, a fellow student at the Academy, is rumored to have gotten many girls pregnant. His mother then accompanies the girls to Sweden and pays for them to have an abortion. His mother is described as a whorish flirt. Larry tells Owen and Johnny about John Kennedy’s affair with Marilyn Monroe. Larry’s mother confirms the rumors. She and Owen then have a frank discussion about the morality of extramarital affairs in which Owen sarcastically ends up asking if Mrs. Lish would sleep with him.

Hester and Johnny both comment that Owen has an exceptionally large penis. Johnny laments throughout the book that he was and remains a virgin. He did accidently touch a girl’s breast once, and his cousin Hester would tease him about his erections, but he never had sex. Owen suggests that Johnny should join the peace movement in order to get laid.

After Owen’s death, Hester spirals into a world of alternative rock music and drugs. Her stage name is “Hester the Molester,” the nickname her brothers gave her when she was younger. Hester has no long-term boyfriends and tells Johnny that she enjoys sleeping with virgins because that ensures she’s having “safe-sex.” Young boys are easier to break up with as well.

Johnny overhears the husband of a friend call him a nonpracticing homosexual. Johnny denies that moniker. He believes that after so many years of failing to lose his virginity, it is a valuable commodity. Besides, the events of his past have neutered him.

Discussion Topics

Additional Comments/Notes

Alcohol: Many characters drink to excess. Dan is described as drinking whiskey after Tabitha’s funeral. The Rev. Merrill’s wife is believed to be an alcoholic. Hester drinks every New Year’s Eve to excess — her vomiting in her grandmother’s bushes is a regular event. Students at the Academy keep unauthorized liquor hidden. Johnny’s uncle drinks beer.

Smoking: Several characters smoke tobacco.

Drugs: A soldier’s dysfunctional family smokes marijuana during his wake.

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