Tabitha kept a dressmaker’s dummy next to her bed. She was a talented seamstress who made her own clothes. She never had a real job, and lived off of Harriet’s generous allowance, but she saved a lot of money by bringing home clothes from nice stores, copying the designs for herself, and then returning the clothes to the store. The dummy was designed to match Tabitha’s physical measurements exactly, and at night John and Dan frequently mistook it for Tabitha standing next to the bed.
As readers have already seen, Tabitha’s body is very important to the book—John and Owen give thorough commentary on it. The dummy, as her body incarnate, will also hold a meaningful place in John and Owen’s lives.
John and Owen liked to play dress-up with the dummy and Tabitha’s clothes. She was practical, and only made clothes in black and white, easy to mix and match. The one dress Tabitha owned that she never wore or put on the dummy was a red dress she brought home to copy into white and black, and then was unable to return when the store had a fire. Dan suggested donating it to his costume collection, but Tabitha thought that the dress would be wasted.
Tabitha is faithful to her puritanical New England heritage, abstaining from anything that could be seen as overly frivolous or flashy. The only colorful dress in her wardrobe is justified by its pattern and the extreme circumstances (later revealed to be false, however) of how it fell into her hands. She can’t bring herself to just get rid of it, however.
Dan became the director for both the students at the Gravesend Academy and the members of the town’s amateur theatre company, the Gravesend Players. Tabitha loved to sing but was too shy to act—she only acted in one of Dan’s plays as a gesture of love for him, when she was the star of the play Angel Street. She wore the red dress once during a rehearsal, but appeared very uncomfortable in it.
Tabitha’s discomfort with acting compared to her passion for singing corresponds with her reluctance to draw too much attention to her body. The attention is on her voice when she sings.
One night, Owen was sleeping over at the Wheelwrights’ when he woke up feeling very ill with a fever. He went to Tabitha’s bedroom, and came back to John’s room to tell him he saw an angel by Tabitha’s bed. John thought Owen must have seen the dummy, but Owen insisted it was on the other side of the bed. Tabitha gave him an aspirin for his fever and he stayed in bed with her in case the angel came back—he suspected he had seen not a guardian angel at her bedside, but the Angel of Death.
The fact that Owen was sick with a fever and that there was a lifelike dummy standing next to Tabitha’s bed makes John, and the reader, skeptical that Owen really saw an angel in Tabitha’s room. His belief that the angel was an ominous figure of death rather than a comforting figure of protection is surprising, since many children are taught that good angels are watching over them.
John thinks that this angel sighting was just a feverish hallucination that Owen believed was real. He became irritated when Owen later suggested that the baseball that killed Tabitha was “fated”; John believes that his mother’s death was purely an accident, while Owen thinks there are no accidents. Owen believes that he hit that baseball for a reason, and that he was made to be so little and speak so strangely for a reason. He is convinced that in going into Tabitha’s room that night, he had interrupted a holy angel at work, and the angel had thus made him responsible for carrying out Tabitha’s death.
John doesn’t share Owen’s belief in divine intervention. He can’t bear to think that his mother would have been taken from him by God. Meanwhile, Owen can’t bear to think that God is not behind his trials, and that his pain is meaningless. After Tabitha’s death, he thinks back to the omen he believed he saw, and concluded that he had been re-assigned the task of ending Tabitha’s life.
Later that same night, Harriet came into Tabitha’s room to scold her for leaving the light and the water on in the bathroom when getting Owen’s aspirin. Owen woke up and mistook Harriet for another deadly angel, letting out such a terrible scream that he awoke the household and the whole neighborhood. Harriet cried out in response, and Lydia shrieked in pain from leaping out of bed and crashing into her dresser. Owen would frequently recall Harriet “wailing like a banshee,” which Dan later told John referred to a female spirit in Irish folklore whose wailing foreshadowed a loved one’s death.
Still feverish, this time Owen is definitely mistaken in believing that an angel has come to Tabitha’s room. The second “angel sighting” incident serves to cast doubt on the first, although Owen still manages to fit it into his theory of omens by suggesting that Harriet’s scream was like the mythological wail of a banshee, foretelling Tabitha’s death. Owen dubiously mixes religion with pagan myth in this questionable theory of events.
Although Tabitha and Dan were clearly in love from the start, she waited four years to agree to marry him. The rest of her family and the town didn’t understand why she insisted on waiting so long, especially because she had already been in such a hasty affair when she became pregnant with John. John thinks that maybe she waited to prove the town wrong about her impulsive judgment, but everyone was quite impatient with her by the time she finally agreed to marry Dan—everyone adored him so much.
Tabitha’s instincts about Dan were so clearly correct that her hesitation to marry him is baffling to people. Why did she leap into such a bad choice and hold back from such a good one? Her motives were a mystery to everyone else who was already convinced that her judgment was correct in Dan’s case.
Harriet frequently prodded Tabitha about her surprising hesitation to marry Dan, which Tabitha insisted was not based on any specific obstacle but just “to be sure.” During their four-year courtship, Tabitha gradually started bringing John to the Episcopal Church and gradually stopped going to her singing lessons. Dan would never have insisted on either change, but she chose to end her old routine. John wondered if Tabitha’s singing teacher could have been her lover, but Owen insisted that it wouldn’t have made sense for her to keep seeing him.
Tabitha keeps her feelings about her marriage to herself like she kept her details about her lover to herself. Either she’s always this intensely secretive about love, or the two secrets are connected. By the time she is ready to get married, she has left both her old church and her old singing ambition behind, suggesting that perhaps the two things are connected to her first secret.
John worried that maybe he was the problem—that Dan wouldn’t marry Tabitha until she told him who John’s father was—but Owen argued that Dan would never have forced Tabitha to tell him anything she didn’t want to. Dan’s family wasn’t the reason for their wait, either—while they certainly didn’t approve of Tabitha being an unwed mother, Dan didn’t get along with them and wouldn’t have listened to them.
John fears that he and his secret paternity could be getting in the way of Tabitha and Dan’s blissful marriage, but Owen reassures him that he isn’t the reason—Dan would never have a problem with John and would never pressure Tabitha to reveal John’s father.
There were no religious objections to Tabitha and Dan’s marriage, either. Both churches approved of the couple and wanted them for their congregations. John preferred the atmosphere and the reverend of the Congregational Church to those of the Episcopal Church. Rev. Lewis Merrill was the pastor of the Congregational Church, while Rev. Dudley Wiggin was the rector of the Episcopal Church. Wiggin was a former airline pilot, forced to retire early from flying after he developed a disqualifying visual impairment. Merrill was highly educated, with an Ivy League English degree, and preached eloquently.
Even though Tabitha was an unwed mother, both Protestant churches in Gravesend welcomed her. John never speculates on whether the Catholic Church would have accepted her, having a traditionally rigid and less progressive stance on sexual morality. The two Protestant churches are led by very different men—one highly intelligent and philosophical, and the other more blue-collar and blustering.
Wiggin had a pilot’s cocky confidence and lack of doubt in his preaching, while Merrill was “full of doubt” in a relatable way that endeared him to his congregation. Merrill preached that faith required clearing the high hurdle of believing in God without any certain evidence that He exists. To Merrill, doubt was not the opposite of faith, but the essence of faith. Wiggin believed absolutely—fearlessly—and he wanted to impart the fear of God into his congregation. Merrill was so popular that members of other churches would regularly miss their own services to hear him preach.
Wiggin preaches as if God is an invisible but certifiable fact, like the temperature and wind speed he measured from the cockpit in midair. But many people fear flying in a plane because they can’t quite believe that unseen forces will keep them in the air, and many people also find it very difficult to believe in a God that can’t be seen. Merrill’s sermons about the natural doubts people feel are extremely relatable.
Owen disapproved of what he considered to be Merrill’s overly intellectual approach to faith, arguing, “IF HE’S GOT SO MUCH DOUBT, HE’S IN THE WRONG BUSINESS.” But people liked the boyishly handsome Merrill, who had an endearing mild stutter. The town also sympathized with Merrill because of his unfortunate family—his wife was a native Californian who failed to acclimate to New England, suffering from endless colds. His children were also sickly, and they were dull and disrespectful.
Owen, who has no doubt in God’s existence, believing himself to be living proof of divine intention, disagrees with Merrill. But people born into ordinary bodies, who don’t find themselves at the center of freak accidents, aren’t as sure that God is watching over them. They like Merrill’s empathy for their flawed faith and they like his deeply human, imperfect life.
Wiggin was comparatively robust and healthy, with a tendency to smirk. He was a bomber pilot in WWII. His wife, Barb, was a former stewardess with a manner as brash as his own, and their kids were great, bulky athletes. John didn’t really understand why they had to leave Merrill’s church for Wiggin’s, but Tabitha implied that Dan cared more about which church they went to than she did. They were married in a neutral, nondenominational church at Gravesend Academy. Merrill and Wiggin shared the service, which was very well attended. In retrospect, John reflects that much of the town may have wanted to see his “fallen” mother finally making herself “respectable,” many thinking to themselves, “Tabby Wheelwright has some nerve to wear white.”
New England traditionally prefers a bit more humility from its church leaders than this couple has, who used to command the skies. Tabitha doesn’t mind the Wiggins, although Dan doesn’t seem to be a big fan of them, as Irving will later show in greater detail. It’s not clear therefore why Dan would have been the reason for the switch. Splitting the ceremony between two reverends also seems rather unusual. Tabitha can’t seem to shake her old church. She can’t leave her past behind, as the occasion of her wedding is still shadowed by her past transgression.
A reception followed at the Wheelwrights’ house, where the Eastmans were their rowdy selves, slapping each other with a toad. There were only two bathrooms in the house open to the reception, and the boys bragged to Hester that they could pee in the bushes. Hester asked them to stand guard so she could squat in the bushes. She gave her underwear to Owen to hold and keep dry while she went.
Hester is just one of the kids messing around in the backyard until she has to go to the bathroom, and then her sex sets her apart from the rest of the group. She only wants the same freedoms that they have, to get back to playing instead of wasting a quarter hour in the bathroom line, but social decorum would forbid it.
For a wedding present, Owen made the couple an abiding memento cut from his father’s finest granite: a brick-shaped marker that he designed and polished himself, engraved with the month and year of the wedding—July 1952. He was very proud of his work.
Owen doesn’t have much to work with—he doesn’t have money to buy Tabitha and Dan anything—but he uses what he does have available, granite, and spends days perfecting it for a heartfelt wedding present. Unfortunately, it’s a bit morbid, like a gravestone.
Owen playfully refused to give Hester her panties back for the rest of the party. She was mildly angry, with a hint of flirtatiousness. A summer storm descended on the backyard party, providing an ominous early end to the festivities. The judgmental attendees in the group probably thought the storm was “what that Tabby Wheelwright deserve[d]—her in her white dress.” It even began to hail while Tabitha and Dan were leaving. Tabitha told Owen to come along so they could drop him off at his house. When she stepped out of the car to make room for him, a hailstone struck her in the head, another omen. Owen drove off with Hester’s panties still in his grasp. When she ran outside after him, the rain soaked her dress, showing the whole party that she wasn’t wearing underwear.
Owen denies Hester the simple relief a boy takes for granted, of quickly and inconspicuously peeing. He insists on holding onto the evidence of her transgression. She doesn’t make a big protest, but she is reminded of yet another male privilege that society prevents her from seizing for herself. And when the rain turns her dress transparent, she is shamed in front of the entire party while Owen has his fun. She is judged for what she is not wearing just as Tabitha is judged for what she wore—a white dress, traditionally symbolic of virginity. The old conservatives at the party believe that the rain—and maybe even the hailstone that strikes her—are divine signs. And of course, Owen is forever associated with Tabitha’s bad omens.
Back in the present, Coach Chickering is dying of Alzheimer’s. He occasionally remembers John and says things like “Owen’s batting for you, Johnny!” and “You don’t want to see her, Johnny.” At Tabitha’s funeral, he cried openly, mourning both Tabitha and his team, which mostly disbanded after the tragic accident. Sitting with him was John’s teammate Harry Hoyt—the boy who had walked before Owen came to bat. Harry would enlist in the Navy after graduating from the town’s public high school, to the great dismay of his mother, a widow. He would then go to Vietnam, where he would die of a venomous snake bite while peeing under a tree outside a brothel.
Tabitha’s tragic death would have a long-lasting effect on many Gravesend residents, like poor Mr. Chickering. The premature death of a young woman at the prime of her life prefigured the senseless deaths of many young people that would later occur during the Vietnam War. Tabitha dies at a baseball game, that favorite American pastime, and America would utterly lose its way during the war, unable to stop playing an unwinnable game.
After Harry died, his mother became politically opposed to the war, and offered to help other local boys avoid the draft and escape her son’s fate. Her employer, the local Gas Works, fired her, and her home was vandalized. She was compelled to move away. At Tabitha’s funeral, she didn’t sit with her son and the rest of the team—unlike her son, Mrs. Hoyt “was never a team player.”
While Harry had willingly enlisted in the military, the fact that he died for the sake of such a dubious war enraged his mother. Unable to go back and save her son, Mrs. Hoyt wanted to save all the other boys who might not have known what they were getting themselves into—or how to get themselves out of it.
John recalls that Mrs. Hoyt was the first person to suggest to him that criticizing the president was not, in fact, anti-American, criticizing the country’s policies wasn’t anti-patriotic, and criticizing the Vietnam War wasn’t the same thing as supporting the communists. Most other Gravesend residents couldn’t tell the difference, and most Americans still can’t.
Mrs. Hoyt told John that true democracy meant making one’s idea and opinions heard, not following along with whatever one’s leaders said. If the leaders were wrong, it was a citizen’s responsibility to speak up. Exercising one’s right to free speech and protest is as “patriotic” and “American” as it gets.
Buzzy Thurston was not present at Tabitha’s funeral—although he “should have been,” since he was the player who brought Owen up to bat when he should have been out on an easy grounder. But John admits maybe he just didn’t see Buzzy, since the church was so full, as packed as it had been for Tabitha’s wedding. The same people who had witnessed Tabitha walking down the aisle in her white dress were back “to acknowledge, O God, that Tabby Wheelwright was not allowed to get off scot-free.”
In John’s mind, the teammates who allowed Owen to come up to bat are accountable, in part, for what happened to his mother. It’s not rational, but he still holds it against them, as anger helps him forget his grief. He is also angry at the self-righteous townspeople who gather like buzzards to reap their satisfaction at his mother’s death, feeling like her transgression was finally punished.
God did not allow Buzzy “to get off scot-free, either,” one could say. If Buzzy was judged for reaching base and allowing Owen to come up to the plate when he should have gotten out, he received his punishment when he later died. Buzzy was in perfect shape before he was called to appear before the draft board, but he was so desperate to receive an exemption that he poisoned himself for two weeks straight before his physical. He binged on drugs and alcohol so heavily that he got himself declared psychologically unfit to serve. However, his plan worked only too well, and he became addicted to his drugs and alcohol. He crashed his car and died while he was high. Mrs. Hoyt argued that he was yet another tragic casualty of the war.
Buzzy, like Tabitha, died at the prime of his life; he was perfectly healthy but was forced to throw his health away in order to escape a tour of duty that would likely have destroyed his body or his soul. His self-sabotage saved him from Vietnam, but couldn’t save his life.
Chief Pike was also at Tabitha’s funeral, still on the lookout for the stolen ball. Pike stared at Owen throughout the whole funeral, suspecting him of possessing the ball. Just like at the wedding, Wiggin and Merrill shared the service. When it came time for the ending hymn, a song about resurrection, John knew that Owen would sing it at the top of his lungs, being extremely fond of the song. For once, John dreaded the sound of Owen’s voice.
The Gravesend Chief of Police is still searching in vain for a way to restore order and bring closure to this tragic case. But there was no sense in this death, and there would be little sense in the deaths to come. The only way to avoid hopeless despair, the book suggests, is to have some kind of faith.
When the mourners proceed to the cemetery, John notices several people holding their ears. He doesn’t understand why until he hears it for himself—the sound of children nearby playing baseball. After the funeral, the Wheelwrights and Eastmans return to Harriet’s house, where Aunt Martha and Dan each invite John to move in with them. John decides to stay with Dan, who has already legally adopted him.
The world does not stop turning when a loved one dies; people continue to live as they have always done. Most of the grieving members of John’s family can’t bear it at first, but they will move on eventually. John, as an adult, seems unable to move on from his trauma.
At the funeral at Harriet’s house, John’s cousins are subdued. Harriet is stoic, and Martha is overwhelmed by grief and disbelief. Hester offers to take a walk with John, alone. She holds John’s hand as they walk and tells him that Owen feels worse than he does. They walk to the cemetery, where Mr. Meany sits in his truck. He tells John that he will keep his promise to Tabitha not to interfere if Owen wants to go to Gravesend Academy. Although John didn’t realize it at the time, he says later that Mr. Meany stopped interfering with anything Owen wanted after Owen hit the fatal ball.
Everyone is processing their grief in their own ways. Hester tries to make John feel better by getting him out of the house. She has enough distance from the tragedy to see how both and John and Owen must be hurting, and how both of their lives have changed forever. The incident seems to have changed how Owen’s parents treat him, allowing him to have his own way from that day on, like he is no longer a child.
John and Hester walk into the cemetery to find Owen praying over Tabitha’s grave. When John calls his name, Owen thinks God is speaking to him. When John and Hester tell Owen that Dan has gone back to his apartment in the Gravesend Academy dormitory for the night, Owen declares that Dan shouldn’t be left alone with Tabitha’s dressmaking dummy, her double. Mr. Meany drives them over to the dormitory and Owen leaves his flashlight illuminating Tabitha’s grave, knowing that she hated the darkness. Dan, who is drinking whiskey, makes no protest when Owen carries the dummy in the red dress away.
Owen is intently praying; whether he prays for his own sake or Tabitha’s, no one knows. He surely wants answers from God about what this terrible death at his own hands could mean. He seems to want to make things right for Tabitha’s family, sparing them as much pain as he can.
Owen says he’ll keep the dummy with him, since Dan, John, and Harriet shouldn’t have it around to look at. Hester points out that he really shouldn’t be looking at it, either, but Owen ignores her. John marvels at how Owen once again manages to orchestrate events exactly as he wants to, easing the Wheelwrights’ grief while making off with what he wanted for himself—first the armadillo claws, now the dummy. As it turns out, the dummy would later have a purpose, proving Owen’s gift for foresight yet again. But at the time, John thought Owen just wanted the dummy to protect him from the forces he disturbed with his supposed “angel” sighting.
While Owen may seem to have only the most helpful of intentions, John perceives an element of self-interest in his preoccupation with the dummy. Taking the armadillo claws and the dummy are actions with their own private motives for Owen as much as they are meant to help Tabitha’s family grieve. But in John’s later experience, he finds that Owen’s secretive actions usually do turn out to help other people, especially John himself.
In the present, it is February 1987, and John believes in angels now. He is upset that he wasn’t elected—or even nominated—for any of the parish offices at Grace Church-on-the-Hill. He feels he should have at least been recognized for his longstanding devotion with a courtesy nomination for something. He recognizes that his fellow parishioners were probably well-intentioned in granting him a break, but still takes the gesture as an insult. He reminisces about the golden years when Canon Campbell was alive, and rector of Grace Church. He finds the new Canon Mackie to be warm and kind, if long-winded, but doesn’t have the same special bond with him as he did with Canon Campbell.
Like Mr. Meany, John doesn’t doubt Owen any longer. Today he knows that angels really can visit. His belief is strong, and he thinks he deserves an appointment to a parish office at his church for the strength of his convictions. However, a church is about more than individual belief—it’s about community, and John evidently struggles with that. The new rector of Grace Church isn’t as tolerant of John’s eccentricities and anti-social tendencies.
John rebukes himself for allowing childish petty thoughts to distract him from the service. But even the Bible proves unsatisfactory that day. Canon Mackie reads Matthew’s Beatitudes, which always troubled John and Owen. Statements like “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” strike John as false—he is still grieving Tabitha’s death, and has yet to feel “comforted.” Like John, Owen didn’t believe that pain and suffering on Earth should be hailed for bringing one closer to God and a heavenly reward. Owen called such ideas “GOODNESS AS BRIBERY,” not genuine faith or selflessness.
John is trapped in a black mood, finding fault with just about everything. Owen and later John himself have a strong faith in God and His divine miracles, but they don’t agree with everything that Christianity teaches. They have seen how people twist religion to justify their own ends. The idea that suffering on earth is acceptable because the reward in heaven will be great makes people passive about helping others—or helping themselves.
John also struggles to sincerely proclaim the language of the Nicene Creed and the general confession. Canon Campbell used to talk him through the words and their meaning, but Canon Mackie tends to brush him off by saying he worries too much about “mere words.” The only part of the service that really speaks to John is the verse from Psalms that says, “Leave off from wrath, and let go displeasure: fret not thyself, else shalt thou be moved to do evil.” He admits that he has been “moved to do evil” by anger in the past.
John believes in the power of the words one speaks—perhaps a lesson he learned from Owen. Other people are content to repeat what they ought to say, but becoming too caught up in pinning down the exact meaning of certain words can keep one from seeing the big picture or taking concrete action. John can recognize the danger of his unresolved anger, even when he’s caught up in it.