John’s mother’s name was Tabitha, but everyone called her Tabby. Only her mother refused to call her Tabby, although Rev. Lewis Merrill once called her Tabitha when he was trying to convince her not to leave his church. Tabby was a popular name for pet cats at the time, and John says that his mother was feline in many respects—not sly, but sleek and touchable. Everyone wanted to touch her, and like a cat, she could both repel and welcome being touched.
Readers don’t learn the name of John’s mother until after they hear how she died. All that mattered to the first part of the story was her identity as a mother, as readers could envision her as their own mother and imagine how devastating her death would be. Now Irving can describe Tabitha in detail, and she’s a complex character, both charming and somewhat detached from others.
Owen once told John, “YOUR MOTHER IS SO SEXY, I KEEP FORGETTING SHE’S ANYBODY’S MOTHER.” Indeed, Tabitha’s sex appeal gave most people the wrong idea about her. Everyone assumed she was all body and no brain, but she was never as simple or as eager to please as she appeared. She was a wonderful mother, and a woman whose pure happiness provoked envy in others, for she was perfectly content with very little. She seemed to need nothing but her son and the right man to be happy, and she had them both for the last few years of her life. Tabitha’s sister, Martha, was a warm and kind woman who loved Tabitha, but never understood her.
Owen might as well have said, “Your mother is so sexy, I keep forgetting she’s a person.” Tabitha’s sex appeal sadly eclipses everything else about her as a human being. People can’t see beyond her body, and she becomes an empty vessel for others to pour their longing or jealousy into. Even John and Owen can’t help but think of her in terms of her physical attractiveness.
Tabitha mostly dressed modestly, never exposing much flesh or wearing dresses tight around the hips, but she liked to wear things that flattered her ample chest and small waist. John wonders if she was a flirt, or if she just discarded her inhibitions on the train, since she met both of her lovers there. Owen tells him he’s being absurd, and nothing happens to his mother on trains. The story behind his mother’s first liaison on the train is her own secret to keep, but she readily tells John the story of how she met his stepfather, Dan Needham, on the same train. Dan loves telling the story with equal enthusiasm, and John badly wishes Dan were his real father.
John’s mother dresses like a man’s ideal woman: not immodest, but pleasing to the male gaze. Such a woman doesn’t flaunt her sexuality, but she is still sexy, and men enjoy looking at her and fantasizing about her. John thinks about his mother in the traditionally misogynistic way that men often think about women—suspecting that they are secretly promiscuous and unworthy. Owen corrects him, not allowing Tabitha’s dignified memory to be insulted.
The Wheelwrights and Lydia were eating dinner one evening after Tabitha returned from her weekly overnight stay in Boston when Tabitha announced that she had met another man on the train. At first they all assumed she meant that she was pregnant again, with a different man. But she realized what they were thinking and corrected herself, saying she had just met a man whom she really liked. Harriet and Lydia are skeptical that she could already know how strongly she felt about this man, but Tabitha is sure.
Tabitha’s judgment seems to be so sound in the case of her future husband that readers have to wonder what could have gone wrong before. Why did she have such an unwise first love affair with a man who wouldn’t marry her?
Harriet is horrified to hear that the man Tabitha met is an actor. Tabitha explains that he was coming to town to interview for a job teaching drama at the academy, which is somewhat more acceptable to her mother. He also graduated from Harvard, which pleases Harriet. When she learns that his name is Daniel Needham, a fine old New England name, she finally relaxes. Just then, Dan himself arrives at the house.
Harriet has snobbish expectations for a man worthy of marrying into her pedigreed family. She is satisfied to learn that he also has a respectable—that is, traditionally wealthy—background, but any idea she may have entertained of Dan as a refined and aristocratic type is quickly corrected by his down-to-earth, unassuming nature.
All of Tabitha’s past dates were young men who didn’t have a clue about what to do with a six-year-old. Dan was unlike the other men because he was gawky and far from handsome; he also knew just how to kindle John’s curiosity with a mysterious package. John peeks into the package when he isn’t supposed to, and finds a terrifying creature inside: a stuffed armadillo. Dan brought it to the academy as a dramatic prop, and he gave it to John as a present. John and Owen both loved it, and liked to scare each other with it.
Dan shows a rare understanding of how children think, and he is prepared to be a dedicated father to John from the start. He is not an aloof man who expects absolute obedience from children, but a loving and compassionate figure who will later fill in for the absence of John’s mother. John and Owen are thrilled with the alien creature he gives them to play with.
Before the armadillo, all the excitement in John’s life came from visits with his cousins up north, in the rural country. His cousins Noah, Simon, and Hester Eastman, all older than him, were daredevils and wildly competitive. He always lost their violent contests, which was a nice change for Hester, who always lost to her two older brothers. Hyper-masculine Uncle Alfred was equally wild, while conventionally feminine Aunt Martha was perfectly mild.
John’s extended family is very different from his own. Harriet’s house is full of women, usually orderly and quiet. The Eastmans’ household, where men outnumber women, is very rowdy. The aristocratic Wheelwrights are scrutinized by the town’s civilized society, while the Eastmans can run wild in the country. John is not well-suited for this dramatic change in environment.
John’s cousin Hester was more drawn to her father’s robust role model, and disdained the constraints of womanhood. Being constantly disparaged by her brothers for being a girl must have also formed her attitude about gender, but Noah and Simon refuse to believe they pushed their sister to become such a radical feminist later in life. Instead they blame Hester’s ambition to defy propriety and scandalize her family as much as possible on an innate “overdose of sexual aggression and family animosity.”
Hester’s father was a towering figure in her life, and she wanted to be as tough as him. If most implicit social messages at the time suggested that females were weaker than males, then Hester wanted to avoid acting like a female should, or at least prove that a female could act however she wanted to. But her family refused to allow her to be anything but an inferior.
John now sees the societal forces at work in Hester’s later sexual rebellion, observing that she must have been affected by being constantly told that her sexuality was a detriment and a punishment, like when her brothers repeatedly forced her and John to kiss whenever John lost a race. John eventually started to lose on purpose, and even got a hard-on.
From his future perspective, John hints that Hester has become a sexual radical, although he doesn’t go into detail. Ironically, he is the one who first harbored inappropriate sexual thoughts about Hester. He allowed her brothers to tie them up and make them kiss because he enjoyed it.
Even after John tells Owen about how “physically damaging and psychologically upsetting” his visits to his cousins are, Owen seems to be jealous of John having fun with his cousins. He wants John to invite him up to Sawyer Depot, where the Eastmans live, but John fears that his cousins would absolutely destroy Owen. Owen is hurt that John would think him too wimpy to keep up with his cousins, but John insists that they’re simply too wild. Owen asks John if he can meet his cousins when they come to Gravesend for Thanksgiving, but John says his grandmother gets upset having so many kids in the house. To make Owen feel better, John invites him to stay the night, which Owen does so frequently that he keeps a toothbrush and pajamas at the Wheelwrights’.
John and Owen are both only children, and Owen seems to envy John’s close relationship with his cousins. The two friends are as close as brothers, and Owen hates to be left out and left alone. He is also insecure about his small size and worries that John might enjoy playing with his normal-sized cousins more than he likes playing with Owen. But John doesn’t mind Owen’s size—he only wants to protect him from the Eastmans’ savage contests, where even an ordinary boy risks moderate injury.
Owen becomes very attached to John’s stuffed armadillo, and asks if he can take care of it when John is with his rough cousins. John agrees that Owen should take the armadillo to protect it. Over Thanksgiving, Owen comes over to the Wheelwrights’ to finally meet John’s cousins.
It makes Owen feel better to be entrusted with the care of the armadillo while John is away with the Eastmans. The beloved creature is a comfort to him when he feels bad that he can’t join them.
The night before Owen comes over, he calls John to check in. One more time, they go over everything about the Eastmans: Noah is the oldest, Simon is next, but no smaller or less wild than his brother, and Hester is the youngest, “PRETTY, BUT NOT THAT PRETTY.” She has the same masculine traits that look so handsome on her brothers—broad shoulders, big bones, heavy jaw—but she’s also dark and hairy, with her father’s large hands. She has almost no traits of her mother’s, who was blonde and aristocratic. Nonetheless, her tough appearance and attitude created a certain sex appeal, combined with her clear skin, solid curves, flashing healthy teeth, thick hair, and taunting, sharp eyes. She would struggle with her weight in her teens, but she was still sexy.
Owen and John are both nervous for Owen to meet the Eastmans—Owen doesn’t want to make a bad impression, and John doesn’t want Owen to get crushed by his cousins. They discuss Hester’s looks like they would any girl’s, even though she’s John’s cousin. John believes Hester’s attractiveness is decreased by her “masculine” attributes, but he approves of her many other pleasing traits. His judgment of her appearance is terribly thorough and critical, and he even shames her for putting on more weight than he’d like in a woman.
When Owen arrives, he is reluctant to announce himself and give a bad first impression with his freak voice. So he waits quietly to be noticed by John and the Eastmans, who are naturally making as much of a ruckus as one can possibly make in an old attic. They finally spot him when the sun blazing through the attic skylight strikes him from above and illuminates him like a descending angel, posed with his arms clasped behind his back like an armless Watahantowet. His face is blood red from his bitterly cold bike ride down the hill. He looks so inhuman that Hester screams, startling Owen into screaming back at her in his singular, high-pitched voice.
Owen is more self-conscious about his voice in this moment, when he wants to impress children who are older than him, than he is throughout the rest of the book. Of course, being Owen, he still finds it impossible to make an ordinary, inconspicuous entrance. He strikes John and his cousins as a creature not of this world, come to judge them.
The Eastmans are so unsettled that they don’t think of harming Owen, as John had feared. They don’t want Owen to catch cold outside, so they decide to play a game indoors where Hester hides inside a dark closet and someone has to find her. Simon goes inside, and she yanks his “doink” to get back at him for ruining her blouse. Owen goes next, and Hester grabs him and tickles him. But he’s so surprised—and scared she’s going to yank his “doink”—that he wets his pants. Poor Owen immediately sprints out of the house and launches himself on his bike to ride home. Instead of making fun of him, John’s cousins feel bad about frightening him.
John may be used to Owen’s strange voice and appearance, but his cousins are not, and they restrain their wildest impulses in the presence of this exceptional boy, who is at once so delicate and so self-assured. They try to be considerate of Owen by coming up with a game to play inside, but he’s still not used to the Eastmans’ signature rough treatment—including rather inappropriate groping. He accidentally pees himself and thinks that he blew his chance at fitting in with the older Eastmans, but they thankfully seem to recognize that their antics are too extreme for everyone to handle.
John and Tabitha drive after Owen, and find him pushing his bike up the hill, wet and cold and embarrassed. He’s stubborn but anxious about getting in trouble with his dad, who is mad at Owen for struggling to outgrow his pants-wetting. John’s mother promises to wash and dry Owen’s clothes, and give him a bath and some of John’s old clothes to wear. In the car, Owen says he’s upset he didn’t make a good impression on the Eastmans to win an invitation to Sawyer Depot. John explains again that he thought his cousins were too rough for Owen—which they just proved, he thinks—but Owen shouts that he doesn’t care what they would do to him. He just wants to ride on a train, and see the mountains. He only gets out of his house when he goes to school, church, or John’s house.
Owen is very embarrassed and worried about telling his parents what happened. He would rather go back and face the Eastmans again than face his father. John’s mother, on the other hand, is very understanding and doesn’t make Owen feel ashamed of himself at all. Owen’s feelings of disappointment and frustration boil over and he finally reveals why he wanted to visit the wild Eastman household so badly—he never gets to go anywhere, period. He’s not as jealous of the people John spends his time with as he is of the traveling John gets to do, even if it’s just going upstate. Owen’s parents stay in their own little world.
Tabitha stops driving to give Owen a hug and a kiss, and she promises him that he can always come with them anywhere. John puts his arm around Owen until he’s ready to go back to the house. Owen marches up to John’s bathroom and takes a bath before rejoining John and the Eastmans. He proposes a new game, where one of the others gets to hide him around the house and the others search for him. Hester goes first, and they search everywhere for Owen until giving up. He never tells where she hid him.
Tabitha and John pity Owen’s claustrophobic existence and try to comfort him. Owen bravely returns to the Eastmans after wetting his pants in front of them. He restores his influence over them, leading them in a game of his own devising where less harm threatens his dignity. Already Owen is good at influencing others for his own advantage. The secret of Owen’s hiding place won’t be revealed until decades later, after Owen’s death.
Owen stays the night at John’s, and remarks how it’s difficult to go to sleep without the armadillo, now that he’s gotten used to it. John would think back to this moment, and to the earlier image of Owen struggling to ride his bike up the hill, at a later date, on the night his mother died. He knew that he and Owen would be thinking about the same things while trying to fall asleep after that awful tragedy: Tabitha, Dan, and Dan’s armadillo. And he knew what poor Owen must have looked like while riding his bike home alone after the fateful baseball game, preparing to face his parents and tell them what he had done.
Owen has really become a part of John’s family, sleeping at the Wheelwrights’, wearing John’s clothes, sharing custody of the creature Dan gave John, befriending the Eastmans, etc. He may even love the Wheelwrights more than his own family, who never show him such love and affection. His closeness with the Wheelwrights’ makes his fatal swing even worse, knowing that he’s inflicted the worst kind of pain on the people he loves most. But their love also allows him to remain part of the family even after the accident, which is extraordinary.
The morning after Tabitha died, Owen deposits a few big boxes at their door. The boxes contain Owen’s entire baseball card collection, his most prized possession. Dan says that Owen gave the beloved cards to John as a gesture of apology, trust, and love, and that Owen surely wishes for John to return the cards to him as a gesture of forgiveness. John needs to give the cards back, and give Owen a prized possession of his own. John gives him the armadillo. The boys exchange these objects because they cannot yet express their feelings about the tragedy.
John is puzzled about why Owen has left him all his baseball cards, but Dan wisely understands the offering. When words fail to capture the enormity of feeling, Owen frequently turns to symbols to express himself. The baseball cards are not meant to be equivalent to the value of Tabitha’s life, of course, but Owen has so little to call his own in life that the cards are especially precious.
Owen returns the armadillo to John after removing its front claws so that it can no longer hold itself upright. John is quite upset that Owen has mutilated the animal, until Dan explains that the amputation is a symbol of how Owen feels, having accidentally killed Tabitha with his own two hands and ripped John’s mother away from him. He and John have lost a part of themselves with Tabitha’s death, and he would cut off his hands to bring her back. John realizes that the armadillo also resembles Watahantowet’s armless totem. Owen told him that Watanhantowet believed that animals had souls, along with rivers, rocks, trees, and other living and non-living natural things. Giving up his land therefore cost him more than the buyer could have imagined.
Owen takes the opportunity to add a further layer of symbolism to his exchange of meaningful objects. He identifies with the armless totem of the sagamore Watahantowet, who was also both robbed of his agency and unwillingly responsible for taking life away from his people by signing away so much of their land to the white settlers.
Later, Owen would tell John what else he meant to communicate through the armless armadillo: “GOD HAS TAKEN YOUR MOTHER. MY HANDS WERE THE INSTRUMENT. GOD HAS TAKEN MY HANDS. I AM GOD’S INSTRUMENT.” John could not have conceived of such a thought at eleven years old, and he would not even have believed in divine appointments. He did not know at the time that Owen had other evidence to convince him that God had selected him for a mission.
Owen believes that only God could have been behind such a freak event as Tabitha’s death by foul ball. Because Owen was the one who sent the ball flying on its fatal trajectory, he believes that God acted through him, making him—and his hands, literally—God’s instrument(s). John later learns that Owen had other signs pointing him towards such a striking conclusion.
John steps back into the present: January 1987, where he’s walking his dog in the snow in Toronto. He tries to avoid American news and television, as well as other Americans in Toronto, but even Canada’s news features too much coverage of American politics, and he finds it difficult to look away.
From John’s hostility towards everything American, readers can assume that his past life in America likely includes terrible memories that he has yet to fully reveal.
In recent news, President Ronald Reagan is militantly determined to prevent the Soviet Union from establishing a “beachhead” in Central America from which to spread Communism in the Western Hemisphere. John criticizes Americans and their leaders for forgetting recent history: for example, the massive antiwar demonstrations in the late 1960s following the disastrous escalation of the war earlier in the decade, under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson.
John’s anger over the mistakes and misbehavior of American presidents in the Cold War suggests that the trauma in his past is tied to the long, violent conflict between American democracy and Soviet communism. The importance of remembering history is something John often emphasizes.
Owen had strong doubts all along about the rationale behind going to war in Vietnam. He questioned whether America was supporting the right Vietnamese leaders in the lead-up to war: “[NGO DINH] DIEM IS A CATHOLIC […] WHAT’S A CATHOLIC DOING AS PRESIDENT OF A COUNTRY OF BUDDHISTS?” He questioned the dubious authority on which the United States went to war: “DOES THAT MEAN THE PRESIDENT CAN DECLARE A WAR WITHOUT DECLARING IT?” And he quickly perceived the fatal strategic flaw at the heart of the war: “THERE’S NO END TO THIS […] THERE’S NO GOOD WAY TO END IT.”
The Vietnam War (1955–1977) was a long, ugly conflict between Western democratic forces, primarily America, and Soviet Union–supported communist forces in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. The region was formerly a colony of France that gained its independence after WWII. The newly independent countries had to choose their governments, and became caught between the different models of the United States and the Soviet Union. In Vietnam, the U.S. supported President Ngo Dinh Diem, who was unpopular with the people. His regime collapsed and civil war broke out. America intervened without officially declaring war.
John asks if people today remember the Tet Offensive, a fierce North Vietnamese offensive during the Vietnamese New Year celebration in January 1968 that struck a heavy blow to morale late in the war. Later that year Robert Kennedy was assassinated, and Richard Nixon was elected. Over 500,000 American soldiers were still in Vietnam a year later. Over 30,000 Canadian soldiers served, too, and a similar number of Americans moved to Canada during the war, including John. In 1971, Lt. William Calley was convicted of premeditated murder in the My Lai massacre of Vietnamese civilians, and John was applying for Canadian citizenship.
America fought with the South Vietnamese pro-democratic forces against the North Vietnamese pro-communist forces, also known as the Viet Cong. The American military continued to fight even when the war was hopeless. The Viet Cong would hide among civilian populations, and American soldiers would target innocent Vietnamese civilians in frustration. The worst civilian massacre was in My Lai, a name which came to symbolize horrific war crimes. John is unable to forget the war’s terrible toll of American and Vietnamese lives.
John says that Owen kept him out of Vietnam, which he’s very grateful for. In fact, John believes that everything Owen did for him more than outweighs everything Owen took from him—even John’s mother.
At the time, nearly all young men in America were drafted to fight in Vietnam, whether they wanted to join the military or not. Owen somehow kept John from having to go to war, among many other blessings he apparently did for his friend—help so valuable to John that it eclipsed Tabitha’s loss.