John remembers his mother, whose name was Tabitha, but who was almost always called Tabby. He describes her manner of dressing, which accentuated her good looks without showing them off, and her touchability. Everyone wanted to touch her, he says, and she was catlike about being touched, either freezing, ducking, or luxuriating in the contact. He does not remember her flirting with men, but imagines that she must have done so on the Boston and Maine railway line, which took her into Boston for her singing lessons. It was on this line that she met John's father, and on this line that she met the man she married, Dan Needham, the man for whom she took John away from the Congregationalist Church and to the Episcopalian.
John remembers the night when his mother told the family about Dan Needham. John is six; it is 1948. John's mother simply announces, at dinner, that she has met another man on "the good old Boston and Maine." After reassuring Mrs. Wheelwright that she is not pregnant again, and telling John that the man is not his father, she tells them that he is a drama teacher who is applying for a job at Gravesend Academy; he is also a Harvard graduate, a fact that John's grandmother finds impressive. Suddenly, the doorbell rings, and Dan Needham appears in the foyer. A rumpled, red-headed, young-looking man, he is very different from the attractive young men John's mother usually dates. Where most of those men are awkward and diffident around John, Dan Needham gives him a mysterious paper bag. He tells John not to open it, but to alert him if it moves. As the adults talk in the living room, John is unable to resist the temptation, and opens the bag. He sees a horrible monster, and screams. Dan laughingly tells John's mother, "I told you he'd open the bag!"
The monster, it turns out, is merely a stuffed armadillo, a prop Dan was using in his lecture at Gravesend Academy. He has just been hired as a history professor, focusing on the way drama and performance distinguish different historical epochs. He gives the armadillo to John to keep, and John cherishes it. Owen also loves it, and the two of them create a game in which one of them hides it in the John's grandmother's attic, and the other has to find it.
John remembers his childhood visits to his mother's sister Martha and her husband Alfred Eastman in the White Mountains in northern New Hampshire. On the train, he always eats too many tea sandwiches, and is forced to use the terrifying restroom--simply a hole cut out in the bottom of the car--before they reach Sawyer Depot. John is simultaneously mesmerized and frightened by his three cousins, Noah (three years older than John), Simon (two years older), and Hester (less than a year older), who are used to a far rougher and more athletic life than John is. He goes skiing with them, but where they are expert skiers, he is a novice, constantly falling down. Hester, who is obsessed with the idea of sex, warns him that he will make himself sterile if he isn't careful.
John remembers waterskiing with his cousins on Loveless Lake, and playing King of the Mountain with them on great sawdust piles in Uncle Alfred's lumberyards; but he says that what really made the contests thrilling was the presexual tension he associated with Hester. Confronted with a burly, rich, masculine father and a gentle and feminine mother, constantly beaten in contests by her older brothers, Hester's only recourse, when she was slightly older, seems to have been "to intimidate every girlfriend either of them ever had and to fuck the brains out of every boy they ever knew." John thinks that Hester was the product of her environment, while Noah and Simon argue that she was born that way. Still, John says that the deck was stacked against her from the start, even before adolescence. He remembers being forced to kiss Hester as a penalty for losing games; the first time, they had to tie Hester to the bed, and later, John began losing the game on purpose.
Owen is always jealous when John goes to visit his cousins. He insists that John not take the armadillo to Sawyer Depot, and says that he should get to take it home with him while John is gone. When he carries it home, Owen brings a box stuffed with cotton to carry the armadillo home in--a box used to transport monuments by Owen's father, part of whose granite business is the selling of granite gravestones. One Thanksgiving, John's cousins come to his grandmother's house in Gravesend--80 Front Street is the address--and John tentatively introduces them to Owen Meany, fearful of what they might do to him.
Contrary to his expectations, they are awestruck by Owen's bizarre appearance and unearthly voice. They play a game in which Hester hides in the closet of John's grandmother's attic, and the others attempt to find her; the rule is that if Hester can grab the searcher's "doink" before he finds her, she wins. When Owen finds Hester, she tickles him instead of grabbing his penis, but she frightens him and he wets his pants. Humiliated, he flees the house, and John and his mother have to chase after him in the car. At last Owen agrees to return--provided that he can take a bath and wash his clothes--and they play a new game, in which Hester hides Owen and the others try to find him. Owen tells John that he thinks his cousins are not terribly wild--he says that they have simply lacked direction.
Later, after Owen's foul ball kills his mother, John remembers that day as he lies in bed trying to sleep. The morning after the accident, John wakes up to see the Meany Granite Quarry truck outside on the driveway. Owen gets out from the passenger door and leaves a large package on the doorstep of 80 Front Street, where John has spent the night rather than in his bed in the apartment his mother shared with Dan Needham. The boxes contain all of Owen's baseball cards, his most prized possessions. But now everything has changed for Owen and John about the game of baseball. John asks Dan Needham what Owen wants him to do with the cards, and Dan replies, "He wants you to give them back." John does so, and on Dan's advice, he also gives Owen the armadillo, to show him that he still loves him.
Dan says that if a thing he gave John could have such a special purpose, he would be very proud, and that is the first time John considers the idea of a designated fate--a "special purpose" in life. John remembers a recent day--January 25, 1987--when he thought of Owen Meany while celebrating the Anglican holiday of the conversion of St. Paul. He identifies with the idea of conversion, he says, because Owen Meany converted him.
After keeping it for two nights, Owen returns the armadillo, just as John returned the baseball cards. But John is outraged to find that Owen has removed the armadillo's claws; with its claws amputated, it cannot stand upright. Dan Needham explains, surprised, that Owen must be making a comment on what has happened--John, Dan, and Owen are all like the armadillo; they have all lost a part of themselves. Later, John thinks that Owen was also referring to the armless totem of Watahantowet, which represented the idea that, to Watahantowet, losing the land that became Gravesend was like losing his arms: everything has a price. According to John, what Owen intended to say with the armadillo was this: "GOD HAS TAKEN YOUR MOTHER. MY HANDS WERE THE INSTRUMENT. GOD HAS TAKEN MY HANDS. I AM GOD'S INSTRUMENT." In other words, Owen was saying that he was appointed by God to carry out a specific purpose.
As John writes his narrative--on January 30, 1987--it is snowing in Toronto, where he lives. The snow makes Toronto seem like a small New England town, almost like Gravesend. John says that he recently read a copy of Ronald Reagan's State of the Union address, which disgusted him; he describes Reaganism as having "numbed America." When Owen and John were seniors at Gravesend Academy in the '60s, Reagan was merely a politician in California, and did not understand anything about the Vietnam War, according to John. Owen, however, did understand, and he and John followed the conduct of the war very carefully. Owen understood everything, and criticized the American presence in Vietnam from the start. By 1971, John had retreated to Canada and applied for Canadian citizenship. Without explaining what he means, he says that it was Owen who enabled him to evade serving in Vietnam; he writes that Owen gave him far more than he ever took from him, "even when you consider that he took my mother."
Chapter 2 introduces the characters of John's cousins, who, especially Hester, are major figures throughout the rest of the novel. Hester is an extremely complex character who is not given a very detailed treatment by Irving. Her primary motivation is her sense of injustice; her brothers are treated differently by her parents, which fills her with outrage. In the rough-and-tumble world of Sawyer Depot, which is also introduced for the first time in this chapter, being a girl is an extreme disadvantage. Hester reacts by hating her parents and obsessing over the idea of sex, which even at a young age she seems to recognize as a potential weapon to be used against men and boys. Compared to John's mother, for whom sexuality seems to be a natural and positive consequence of an extremely loving temperament, Hester treats sexuality as a deeply negative force; it seems to make her bitter, but she recognizes its usefulness.
John, who is so passive and so unremarkable compared to his fiery cousins, is wildly drawn to Hester--probably far more so than he lets on in the novel. He admits that he began losing the kissing game on purpose, and admits that kissing her gave him "a hard-on," but he never says outright that he was sexually attracted to her or describes his feelings for her at all. After he begins kissing Hester, however, he remains a virgin for the rest of his life. In a sense, the contrast between John and his cousins is neatly represented in the contrast between Gravesend and Sawyer Depot: Gravesend, like John, is very reserved and very understated, a prim and proper New England town; the more rustic Sawyer's End is wild and exuberant, a country outpost in which physical activity, not social propriety, seems to be the governing principle.
One of the novel's important motifs begins in Chapter 2 with John's diatribe against the Reagan administration. As John's narrative progresses forward in time, he begins more and more often inserting diary entries describing his life in Canada in 1987, as a middle-aged man. These diary entries are by far the best insight into John's character that we are given in the book, and many of them revolve around his political hatred of Americans and of Ronald Reagan in particular. It is clear that something has happened to John that makes him extremely angry and bitter during his middle years, and that he has focused on Reagan's America as the source of his bitterness. Of course, his political outrage may be real--and may very well be stand-ins for Irving's actual political opinions at the time he wrote the book--but John also seems to project an inordinate amount of pain into his readings of news headlines. As becomes clear in later chapters, what he blames America for is the loss of his innocence and the death of Owen Meany.