A Prayer for Owen Meany

by: John Irving

Chapter 1: The Foul Ball

Summary Chapter 1: The Foul Ball


John Wheelwright, the narrator of the story, writes that he will always remember Owen Meany--not because of Owen's loud voice or his tiny body, or even because he was the instrument of John's mother's death, but because Owen Meany is the reason that John believes in God. John describes his history of religious faith, his conversion from Congregationalism to Episcopalianism and from Episcopalianism to Anglicanism. He says that he is not exactly a devout Christian, but he is a regular churchgoer and reads his prayer book often--more often, in fact, than he reads his Bible. He says that when he dies, he will attempt to be buried in New Hampshire next to his mother, though it will be difficult to have his body returned to the United States from Canada, where he now lives. He says that he has a "church-rummage" religious faith--one that needs patching up every Sunday. But he owes the faith he has to Owen Meany.

John remembers the way he and his friends used to torment Owen in Sunday school class. Owen had an unbelievably tiny body and undeveloped vocal cords, so that the only way he could be heard was to shout through his nose. In Sunday school, the teacher, Mrs. Walker, often walks out of the class--ostensibly to leave the students to think about their lessons, though John suspects that she simply needs a smoke--and when she does, the other students lift Owen up above their heads and pass him around the room. They love Owen--the girls call him a "little doll"--but they are too fascinated by his tininess to leave him alone. As he passes over their heads, he loses the change from his pockets and his baseball cards. Owen loves baseball cards, even though he is never allowed to swing at a pitch in Little League--his strike zone is so small, he is always forced to walk. When the teacher returns to class and blames Owen for the disarray, Owen never complains; John remembers that even when he was hung up from his locker at school and left dangling, he simply called out "NOT FUNNY!" in his ethereal nasal voice until someone took him down.

John writes that he grew up in the town of Gravesend, New Hampshire, where his family, the Wheelwrights, occupy a position of aristocratic prestige. In Gravesend during John's childhood, his maternal grandmother, Harriet Wheelwright, was the matriarch of the town, descended from John Adams and wielding the Wheelwright name with expert authority. John describes his ancestors' role in the founding of Gravesend--an earlier John Wheelwright, in 1638, bought the location from an Indian sagamore; this earlier John Wheelwright became a Puritan in England and was later expelled from Massachusetts for his unorthodox religious beliefs. John feels that much of his own religious confusion stems from his ancestor's legacy. John writes that Watahantowet, the Indian sagamore who sold the town site to the first Wheelwright, could not write, so he signed his name with his totem, an image of an armless man.

Of John's parents, his mother was the Wheelwright, not his father; but John's mother kept her maiden name and John was raised as a Wheelwright, never even knowing who his father was. John's mother occasionally referred to John's father as her "little fling." John's mother died when he was eleven, before ever telling him about his father. John remembers that once, as the two of them sat throwing rocks into the Squamscott River, Owen prophecized that John will learn about his father one day. Owen's little arms cannot pitch the rocks all the way into the water, but he tells John that even if his father does not come forward, God will reveal his presence to John. As he says this, he hurls a pebble all the way out into the water, surprising both John and himself. John says that with this stroke, Owen "began his lengthy contribution to my belief in God."

John talks a bit about the history of Gravesend, whose first great industry was lumber. John's grandmother always preferred trees to rocks, so that she was proud of the lumber trade and contemptuous of the Meany family, which ran a granite quarry. John remembers Owen telling him about the quality of granite required to make a gravestone, and remembers that he wondered why Owen wasn't deaf; there was something wrong with his size and his voice, but, despite the noise of the granite quarry, his ears were healthy. Owen also introduced John to Wall's History of Gravesend, a book that John refers to often in his own narrative.

John relates the story of his mother's pregnancy, during which time she never divulged the details of her affair, saying only that she met a man on the railroad that took her to Boston for singing lessons. Only her sister, John's Aunt Martha, was resentful; everyone else accepted her behavior as they always accepted her behavior, because she was beautiful and affectionate. John says that the only hurtful action she was incapable of making amends for was dying.

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