When Owen and John were seniors, practicing the shot in the school gymnasium, Owen finally tells him what he has believed since he was eleven: “GOD HAS TAKEN YOUR MOTHER. . . . MY HANDS WERE THE INSTRUMENT. . . . I AM GOD’S INSTRUMENT.” John asks why Owen needs his help with the shot, if he’s God’s instrument. Owen insists that “FAITH CAN MOVE MOUNTAINS,” and says John’s problem is that he doesn’t have faith.
John is becoming irritated with Owen’s unexplained insistence on mastering a seemingly pointless trick. Owen tells him that he and his hands are God’s instruments, but John doesn’t understand what that has to do with the shot. Owen just tells him he doesn’t have enough faith.
That fall, John only applies to the University of New Hampshire, while Owen applies to Harvard and Yale. The University of New Hampshire gives Owen an Honor Society Scholarship before he even applies, but he won’t go there unless it’s to be with Hester and John. John won’t ask Owen to turn down an Ivy League school for him, and he is becoming a good student in English and History by himself—he tells Owen he can finally fend for himself. But Owen won’t rule out going to state school to see more of Hester, and his parents.
John is still reluctant to take an adventurous approach to life, preferring the path of least resistance. Even Owen, with all of his vast potential, seems to be at risk of getting trapped in a rut—sticking by John’s side and staying in New Hampshire instead of striking out on his own. True adulthood is closer than ever, and suddenly they don’t want to leave childhood behind.
After their disagreement, Owen and John finally manage to make the basketball shot in under four seconds. Owen immediately wants to try for three seconds, to John’s irritation. “FAITH TAKES PRACTICE,” Owen says. That fall, he and John begin to quarrel for the first time. They can’t agree on where to go now that they have the senior privilege of taking the train to Boston once a week. John is happy going along with the boys who buy booze with fake IDs, get drunk, and go to a strip club. He doesn’t mind drinking, and he hasn’t lost his virginity yet, despite going on dates with Caroline O’Day and Lorna Pike.
Owen is never satisfied when it comes to how perfectly they can make the shot. He frames their quest as a matter of faith, strangely enough, for what appears to be an athletic endeavor. As their lives prepare to possibly diverge, he and John begin to experience friction. Trying to do everything together can’t work forever when they’re fundamentally different people. John is more eager to conform with others, even if their values are questionable.
Owen doesn’t drink, and he won’t make fake draft cards anymore, having become self-righteous and law-abiding after taking Kennedy’s speech to heart. So he and John have to endure their trips to Boston completely sober, even the shows at the strip club that are “only watchable to the blind drunk”—otherwise the performances are clearly “DISGUSTING” and “DEGRADING.” Owen makes them leave the strip club and walk around a nicer part of town, which is a new sight to him. John doesn’t realize that Owen purposefully wants to go to the upscale boutique where Tabitha once bought her infamous red dress.
Unlike John, Owen sticks to his values. John always goes along with Owen, so he ends up acting out Owen’s morals—and even Owen can apparently be persuaded to visit a strip club. While he objects to the degrading displays that the other men encourage, the woman on stage is portrayed as repulsive and grotesque, with little empathy for her humanity. Owen does make them leave, but only to pursue another woman—Tabitha.
Once Owen and John get to the store, they see that Tabitha had lied about it burning down. Owen saw the store in the newspaper one day and recognized the name from the label on the dress. They go inside and talk to the owner, who says the store never had a fire. Owen shows him a picture of Tabitha, and he says she was “The Lady in Red”—a singer at a supper club who always wore the red dress she bought at his store. She performed one night a week with a black pianist named Buster accompanying her, and she was a regular feature of the club.
Owen and John discover that Tabitha was hiding more than just the identity of her lover—she was hiding large parts of herself. She pretended to hate the red dress but wore it frequently, while she performed in secret. She wasn’t just taking singing lessons, but singing in a regular act. Doing one show a week seemed to satisfy her, as she never pursued more gigs, but perhaps she needed only a single outlet to escape the stifling conventions of her town.
Next Owen takes John to the office of Tabitha’s singing teacher, Graham McSwiney, who gave Owen an appointment to have his voice analyzed. They wait outside for the previous lesson to finish while John absorbs the fact that his mother was a very convincing liar. McSwiney eagerly examines Owen’s Adam’s apple, or larynx. When a normal person like John swallows, yawns, or screams, his Adam’s apple moves up and down. Owen’s Adam’s apple doesn’t move—he has a fixed larynx, stuck in the position of “a permanent scream.” McSwiney advises him to consider seeing a throat doctor for surgery.
Owen and John continue to track down Tabitha’s secret life, everything she never told her mother or sister about. They don’t know what Dan knew. John wonders what else Tabitha could have been lying about. He and Owen already suspected that the man on the train was in fact a familiar Gravesend resident, so the revelation of another secret isn’t a total shock. The anatomical explanation of Owen’s unusual voice doesn’t really mean anything to Owen, who only cares for the divine justification.
Owen refuses, saying, “IF GOD GAVE ME THIS VOICE, HE HAD A REASON.” John asks McSwiney why Owen’s voice hasn’t changed with puberty, and McSwiney says he can’t explain why—he can only say that it likely won’t change in the future. Owen introduces John as Tabitha’s son, and shows McSwiney her picture. He explains that he got her the gig when the supper club asked him for good singers to perform. It wasn’t a serious gig, but she still thought she could be “discovered” singing there, despite McSwiney’s advice that nobody got discovered in Boston, especially in such a little joint. She wouldn’t sing under her real name out of shyness or provincialism.
Owen refuses to pursue the possibility of changing his voice. If he’ll never have a deepened adult voice, he’ll never sound perfectly normal, anyway. One would think that speaking in a perpetual scream might be painful, but Owen doesn’t say anything about this. He trusted God’s will to provide for him, just as Tabitha seemed to believe that she would be discovered if it was meant to be. She didn’t actively pursue a singing career, but hoped nonetheless that her talent would be noticed.
McSwiney thought Tabitha was charming, but careless and unambitious—she preferred simple, popular songs and didn’t practice. Her voice was pretty, but she wouldn’t train it to be strong. She wanted to be “wholly out of character—but only once a week.” The club was named The Orange Grove, and her accompanist was a gay black man named Buster Freebody—another made-up name. McSwiney says he isn’t John’s father—he once tried to make a pass at Tabitha, but she turned him down. Owen says once again that God will tell John who his father is. McSwiney reassures them that nothing bad would have happened to Tabitha at The Orange Club.
McSwiney usually trains serious artists, but Tabitha was mostly a hobbyist with a dream she wasn’t really committed to. Her modest life in the small town of Gravesend truly suited her, even if she longed for a little adventure every now and then. McSwiney found her attractive, but wasn’t her lover. He says that nobody would have taken advantage of her at her gig. The world of potential fathers seems larger than ever, but Owen doesn’t lose faith that John will find him.
Back in the present, John scoffs at a headline about Reagan in The New York Times. He remembers New Year’s Eve in December 1961, when just over three thousand U.S. military personnel were stationed in Vietnam. That night, Hester threw up in the rose garden outside from too much rum and Coke. By the next New Year’s Eve, there are over eleven thousand military personnel in Vietnam, and Hester was once again stuck throwing up in the rose garden. In Toronto, the school year will soon be over. John looks forward to going with Rev. Keeling’s family to their private island in Georgian Bay. He also looks forward to visiting Dan in Gravesend, and seeing one of his summer school productions. He doesn’t watch The Gravesend Players anymore.
New Year’s Eve is supposed to be a turning point, an opportunity to change course and look to the future with hope. But year after year, the world seems trapped in the same terrible cycle—more and more men are being sent to their deaths, with no signs of stopping. Hester can’t stop from drinking until she makes herself sick. America is poisoning itself, and people are powerless to stop. John looks forward to the simple pleasures of the upcoming summer, perhaps hoping for a reprieve from his dark memories.
In 1961, John and Owen still scanned the audiences at Dan’s shows to find John’s father. Now they imagine that his father must have been to see his mother sing at The Orange Grove. Owen wants to pull off a Hamlet-like scheme of staging a play set at a club called The Orange Grove, and seeing how the audience members react. But they don’t want to tell Dan about Tabitha’s secret life in case he doesn’t already know, and John doesn’t want him to be hurt by his curiosity about his biological father. John and Owen have this discussion on New Year’s Eve, at Hester’s apartment in Durham. It’s only two o’clock in the afternoon and Hester is already passed out from drinking.
Even after learning about Tabitha’s secret singing gig in Boston, John and Owen still believe that her lover lived in Gravesend. They think the performances at the club are related to the affair, however. Owen wants another opportunity to stage a show, even after the disaster that was the Christmas pageant. But John rejects the idea, saying that he doesn’t want to hurt Dan. John is likely also scared by the chance to finally discover the truth about his father, unwilling to risk disappointment or rejection.
Owen wants to go to the gym and practice their basketball shot, but John doesn’t want to. He asks Owen why Hester drinks so much, and Owen says Hester is “AHEAD OF HER TIME”—he believes, without knowing why, that the next generation or two will be angry and callous.
Another New Year’s Eve means another bout of binge-drinking for Hester. Her rage at being denied so many opportunities in life for reasons outside of her control anticipates the rage of a generation drafted into war.
Back in the present, it’s June in Toronto. John bought a copy of The New York Times after talking to a car full of ignorant American tourists. He thinks that Americans became bored with hearing about Vietnam before America left Vietnam; they became bored with hearing about Watergate before the investigation was even finished; and they’ll be soon bored with Iran, Nicaragua, and the Persian Gulf, too, if they’re not already. The phenomenon is as familiar to John as Hester’s inevitable bouts of puking on New Year’s Eve. She puked in 1963, when there were 16,300 U.S. military personnel in Vietnam; she puked in 1964, when 23,300 Americans were there; and in 1965, when there were 184,300 Americans in Vietnam.
John thinks that Americans have disturbingly short attention spans. They don’t care to dwell for too long on difficult problems, preferring to turn away from crises that don’t have a simple answer. Matters of sexual indecency, like the senator’s sex scandal, are black-and-white issues for most Americans, for better or for worse. In the case of sexual misconduct, it’s usually easy to denounce the wrongdoing and call for the guilty party to step down. This isn’t always the case for complicated problems like war.
In 1966, there were 385,300 Americans in Vietnam, and John was by himself at Harriet’s house. In 1967, there were 485,600 Americans in Vietnam, and John himself threw up in the rose garden. He doesn’t remember New Year’s Eve 1968, but there were 536,100 Americans in Vietnam, and he was surely throwing up somewhere.
John flashes forward to later memories of New Year’s Eve, showing glimpses of an ominous future when he is alone rather than joined by Owen and Hester, and where his memories are too painful to recall.
On January 1, 1962, Owen wrote in his diary, “I know I am God’s instrument.” John still didn’t understand the extent to which Owen believed God was guiding his life, which would later explain why Owen reacted as passively he did to the crises of that year. One day John and Owen were hanging around the editorial offices of the school newspaper, of which Owen was now the editor-in-chief, when a fellow senior named Larry Lish told them that JFK was sleeping with Marilyn Monroe. Larry was the son of the movie producer Herb Lish, and he was “Gravesend’s most cynical and decadent student.” He would get a girl pregnant every now and then, and his mother would fly her to Sweden for an abortion.
As another year dawns, Owen recommits himself to following God’s will. This new year promises to be the most transformative of any he has faced before, as he and John prepare to leave Gravesend and their intertwined lives behind for an uncertain future. Owen trusts that God will lead him down the right path. As bright as he is, he doesn’t express many concrete ambitions for the future, waiting to see where God will take him (or assuming that he already knows his own future).
Larry was undeniably witty, but students and teachers secretly hated him—never outright, though, because his parents were too powerful. His father threw him parties in Beverly Hills, and his mother threw him parties on Fifth Avenue. The Lishes were divorced, and they competed for Larry’s attention with “excessive partying and expensive sex.” Larry’s mother told him about JFK and Marilyn Monroe, which Owen calls “A TRULY TASTELESS LIE.” Larry says that Owen can ask his mother himself when she visits next weekend.
Larry is a foil to Owen—a boy who is equally clever with his words, but who comes from a drastically different background. Unlike Owen, who is from working-class origins and seems painfully unworldly at times, Larry has traveled all over the world. And unlike Owen’s parents, who rarely show him affection, Larry’s parents lavish their son with attention.
Owen is very disturbed all week by this rumor—he idolizes JFK, and John says he wasn’t “sophisticated enough to separate public and private morality.” Today, John says, an affair between JFK and Marilyn Monroe would seem only moderately immoral compared to “the willful secrecy and deception, and the unlawful policies” of the Reagan administration. Owen, however, was very upset back then. “IF KENNEDY CAN RATIONALIZE ADULTERY, WHAT ELSE CAN HE RATIONALIZE?” he wonders. He blames Kennedy’s loose morals on his Catholicism—“IF CATHOLICS CAN CONFESS ANYTHING, THEY CAN FORGIVE THEMSELVES ANYTHING, TOO!”
Owen is horrified to think that the president might really be cheating on his wife with Marilyn Monroe. Owen took so much inspiration from Kennedy’s inaugural speech—in which he called for Americans to place the good of their country over their personal interests—that he would feel greatly betrayed if Kennedy valued his personal lusts over the greater virtues of staying faithful to his wife and providing the country with an exemplary role model. John is more cynical, thinking that infidelity is hardly as outrageous a transgression as other presidential dishonesties. But Owen sees an affair as the start of a greater moral collapse.
Owen doesn’t believe the president is above the law—the president is supposed to set the example for upholding the law. He also objects to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s draft program that would draft an outsize proportion of minorities, high-school dropouts, and men from low-income families. McNamara pitched the draft as “an opportunity” for “the poor of America,” but Owen sees through the unjust policy.
Owen thinks that Kennedy’s position gives him a greater responsibility to lead an upstanding life. He doesn’t believe that leaders should lie or conceal their intentions. The people should be able to have faith in their government not to deceive them, especially about the sacrifices they may be asked to make.
In the present, it’s a hot July in Toronto, and John is back in the bad habit of buying The New York Times. The paper’s poll says that most Americans believe Reagan is lying, but John wonders if they care. He wants Katherine to invite him to her isolated island.
The summer has not brought John any relief from his gloomy thoughts. Without teaching to occupy him, he becomes even more preoccupied with following America’s evils.
Larry’s mother, Mitzy Lish, was an attractive older woman—sexier than Hester, even, whose “early-blooming eroticism” was diluted by her carelessness and heavy drinking. Mitzy spent her days drinking coffee, smoking, doing her makeup or her hair, shopping, lunching with a friend or a lover, going to the movies, and gathering gossip. She never worked, or even cooked. Larry told everyone all about his mother—he thought she was a joke. But John and Owen are very intimidated by her, and feel very provincial in her presence.
Mitzy comes from the rarified world of New York society, alien to the boys who rarely even venture into Boston. She is a caricature of the shallow society type who has nothing to do but gossip and tear down others for her amusement. Own and John never fail to rate the relative attractiveness of every woman they meet, judging the women against each other.
As promised, Larry brings Mitzy to confirm the rumor about JFK and Marilyn Monroe. She seems to enjoy Owen’s distress at the news; like Barb, she bullied young men. To her and her son, Owen seems laughably naïve and unworldly to be so upset by an affair. Mitzy asks Owen, “If Marilyn Monroe wanted to sleep with you, would you let her?” Owen says he wouldn’t do it if he were the president—especially not if he were married. In disbelief, Mitzy says, “This is the future?” For Owen is the school’s valedictorian as well as the paper’s editor-in-chief.
Mitzy is a bully in the vein of Barb. A snob from a rich and worldly lifestyle who looks down on others, she is the type of person whom Owen was most reluctant to encounter at an exclusive school like Gravesend. However, Mitzy is also the product of her society, which teaches that women have little value outside of their attractiveness. She spends a large part of every day on her beauty, conforming to this ideal. Owen and John themselves judge her looks.
But Owen won’t stand to be bullied or taken lightly—he says to Mitzy, “IF YOU WANTED TO SLEEP WITH ME…WHAT THE HELL…I SUPPOSE I’D TRY IT.” Then he walks away. Larry makes no effort to defend his mother, but Mitzy reports Owen to Randy White. Owen tries to defend himself to White, but it’s hard for him and John to put into words exactly what kind of sexual bullying Mitzy had taunted him with. Owen refuses to tell White about the JFK rumor that made him so upset, in case the rumor spreads. He wants to protect the president.
Owen never stands down—he gave Barb Wiggin a look that could kill when she tried to humiliate him at the pageant, and now he uses his words to cut down Mitzy Lish. He insults her by implying that she would be promiscuous enough to sleep with him, but he wouldn’t really want to sleep with her. He calls her easy and ugly at once, two grave insults to a woman in Mitzy’s society.
Mitzy apparently told White that Owen said something anti-Semitic to her, but Owen hadn’t even known she was Jewish. In a faculty meeting, White says that such disrespect to school parents cannot be tolerated, but Mr. Early and Dan argue that Owen broke no rules by propositioning Mitzy. White wants Owen expelled, but Dan says he should be put on probation, at most. White wants Owen punished for being anti-Semitic, but Mitzy never explained what he could have said to her that was related to her religion. White himself—as well as a good number of the WASPy Gravesend faculty—is known to be anti-Semitic himself, and Owenias not indicted for his supposed “discrimination.”
Mitzy has such a large ego and feels so deeply insulted by Owen’s snub that she wants to punish Owen beyond the bounds of his indirect insult. Since propositioning a woman is not technically against school rules, she lies and tells the headmaster that Owen used anti-Semitic language. White also wants the opportunity to take Owen down, but lacks proof. Ironically, the real bias of many faculty members helps Owen’s overall case, and Mitzy’s plan backfires.
Owen is put on probation for the rest of the winter term, as Dan suggested. But he isn’t grateful to have been saved by the faculty, and he stops speaking in class or writing as The Voice. He says he’s focusing on writing his valedictorian speech, when it’ll be too late for them to expel him for what he says. The school makes him go to Dr. Dolder.
Owen still thinks his insult was justified in response to what Mitzy herself said, and feels that he’s being unfairly persecuted. Disillusioned or disappointed by the corruption he sees in the adults around him, he stops speaking up.
Back in Toronto in July, John is still waiting to be invited to Georgian Bay, and still raging at The New York Times. Congress is more concerned with lecturing the president’s lackey against blind devotion to the president’s agenda than with reprimanding the president himself. Whenever Owen got wind of such a bunch of bullshit, he would echo Harriet and declare: “THAT’S MADE FOR TELEVISION.”
John feels anger against the timeless failure to hold people in power accountable for their actions. The most powerful always face the least consequences.
Owen would say that about his bi-weekly sessions with Dr. Dolder—“MADE FOR TELEVISION.” He wouldn’t tell John what really happened in the sessions, however. He only says that he answers all of Dolder’s questions truthfully, without humor. Dolder told him to talk to Rev. Merrill, so he has two more sessions every week. Owen is already doing an independent course of study with Merrill, pursuing his interest in miracles and life after death.
Owen thinks his mandated psychiatric appointments are absurd. He gives honest answers to the school psychiatrist, but doesn’t seem to take what the doctor says seriously. Dolder refers him to speak to Merrill, which is surprising. Evidently Owen’s religious beliefs seem disturbing to Dolder.
Back to July in Toronto—John is getting his hair cut, and he tells the barber he wants it as short as Colonel Oliver North’s hair. The barber has no clue what he’s talking about, and John despairs at humanity’s short memory. Owen remembered everything, he says.
John is somewhat absurdly disappointed when the Canadian hairdresser doesn’t know who the American Colonel Oliver North is. His standards for humanity’s memory are rather unreasonable.
In February 1962, the winter term was nearly over. Owen was tired of getting up early in the dark, freezing mornings to go fulfill his scholarship job as a faculty waiter. It is so cold one morning that his pickup truck is dead, and he has to jump-start the granite truck and roll it down the hill before it will start. When he finally gets to school in the big truck, another car is blocking him from parking in the school’s circular driveway and he can’t park out on the street because of snow-plow rules.
Owen has always had his share of grievances, despite his noble principles. He faced more obstacles in his life than most of his peers, having to work harder to make up for his small size and poor background, so his frustration at his circumstances is understandable. The fortune of having Harriet as a benefactor and a bright, determined mind makes his struggles easy to forget, but they’re real.
The car in the driveway is Dr. Dolder’s Volkswagen Beetle, which he leaves parked outside the Main Academy Building overnight whenever he’s been drinking at the Whites’ house. He could have just walked across campus to begin with instead of driving, but he loves to drive everywhere. He never drinks so much that he couldn’t get back behind the wheel, but he loves his car too much to risk it. Owen is sitting in his truck fuming when he sees the basketball team walking towards the dining hall. He calls them over, since he knows them from practicing his shot.
Ironically, the school psychiatrist regularly acts irrationally by taking his car to go a short distance instead of simply walking, then inevitably leaving the car when he drinks excessively. He seems like even more of a hypocrite when he interrogates the students about their own issues. Owen hates hypocrisy as well as adults who abuse their power. When he sees an opportunity to undercut the power of men like Dolder and White, he takes it.
Owen bets the players that they can’t pick up the Beetle in the driveway, but they claim they’re strong enough to carry it anywhere. Owen tells them to carry it into the Main Academy Building and put it on the stage of the Great Hall, where White has moved all the daily meetings to serve his “GRANDSTANDING.” While the team moves the car, Owen parks at Dan’s dorm to avoid suspicion, then goes to work. A janitor finds the car onstage when he is raising the blinds in the Great Hall, and calls White. White then calls the faculty to come and move the car offstage before the assembly, to avoid giving the students “the last laugh.”
Owen smoothly orchestrates the prank by using other students’ strength for his own ends. He might be too small to ever participate in such a feat, but his strength lies in convincing others to do what he cannot. He may no longer be addressing the school as The Voice, but he has always commanded the silent message as well as the spoken one. He tells the adults that they do not have the power they think they do—they will still have to answer to the student body one day.
When Dan gets White’s call and sees Owen’s car outside his dorm, he realizes who is probably behind the prank. White suspects Owen, too, without proof. Moving the car goes disastrously, since the faculty are not as strong as the basketball players, and moving a car downstairs is harder than moving it upstairs. Teachers start dropping from injury left and right. Dan thinks that they should have just ordered the more capable students to move it back instead of moving it themselves—then the students would also be liable for damaging the car.
White is determined to avoid what Owen has set him up for, what he fears most—public humiliation and appearing powerless in front of his students. Yet his stubbornness makes the problem exponentially worse. He’s not smart enough to think of the solution Dan does.
White refuses to cancel morning meetings or enlist the students’ help; he climbs behind the wheel of the car and insists the teachers push the car down the stairs while he steers. Instead of driving smoothly down the staircase, the car flips and lands on its roof. White is trapped in the car while his back spasms painfully from lifting the car single-handedly earlier. He eventually has to be rescued by professionals with a blow torch.
White is more humiliated than Owen could have dreamed of. He refused to listen to the other teachers, and ignored all reason. Like many bad leaders, he is unable to admit that he has made a mistake, and ends up making a massive fool of himself.
Back in Toronto in July, Katherine has invited John to her island. He needs to get away from the newspapers—he hasn’t been to church in a month, too preoccupied with the news. He remembers what Owen and Rev. Merrill used to say: “WOE UNTO THEM THAT CALL EVIL GOOD AND GOOD EVIL.”
John is happy to get away from his obsession with current events. He reminds himself that the wrongdoers in the newspaper will one day meet their due: woe unto them, God says. John can only find satisfaction in the possibility of divine justice, since earthly justice is clearly lacking.
Merrill was the first person after John to ask Owen if he had been involved with moving the car onstage. Once Owen confirms that their conversation is confidential, he confesses. Merrill promises to steer White away from suspecting him. Dan tells Owen he doesn’t want to know anything about what happened. The headmaster has no hard evidence against Owen, but he soon receives evidence of a different transgression—Owen’s old fake ID business. Larry is busted buying beer, and he rats Owen out for selling fake IDs to the whole school. White and Chief Pike strike a deal where no criminal charges will be brought against anyone at the academy if all the fake draft cards are turned over. White makes all the students hand over their wallets to the faculty, who remove their fake draft cards.
Merrill also knows Owen well enough to suspect that he was behind the prank. Owen trusts Merrill to tell him the truth, and Merrill promises to help. However, no one can save Owen from all his past misdemeanors. The rich and privileged Larry Lish seizes the opportunity to reassert his power over Owen, and White eagerly joins him. The order-obsessed Chief Pike makes a special exception for Gravesend Academy, as even he is not immune to the school’s long tradition and influence.
Dan protests that confiscating wallets is illegal, but White insists he’s saving the school from the disgrace of having charges brought against its students for possessing illegal fake IDs. The student who produced and sold the IDs—Owen—will be brought before the Executive Committee, while everyone possessing a draft card will be on probation for the whole spring term. The Executive Committee “crucified” Owen, according to John. He is expelled. Old Archibald Thorndike publicly condemns the decision, as well as “the Gestapo methods” of confiscating the students’ wallets. Dan tells White that he’s “the worst thing that ever happened to this school,” and vows to resign, with other teachers, if White doesn’t leave.
The school violated the students’ right to privacy by seizing their draft cards. Everyone in possession of one is then punished with probation—a rather lenient sentence for carrying an illegal fake ID. The majority rich, white male students of Gravesend students are rarely subject to the full consequences of the law. The only student not to receive such lenient treatment is Owen Meany. White’s totalitarian seizure of the students’ wallets, combined with his blatantly unequal treatment of Owen, turns the school against him.
Owen refuses to talk to anybody afterwards, until he calls Harriet to apologize for letting her down. She says that he didn’t let her down, and that she’s still proud of him, but he says that he’ll make her even more proud. He asks her to tell John and Dan to be sure to come to the next morning assembly. Worried about what he could be up to, John and Dan look for him all night, but can’t find him. Finally they drive past St. Michael’s School and realize that the statue of Mary Magdalene is missing. They go to The Great Hall and find the statue onstage. Owen has removed both her arms and her head, welded her to the podium, and bolted her to the floor. The janitor says that he isn’t telling Headmaster White, this time.
Owen goes silent again, only wanting to apologize to Harriet for spoiling her investment in his Gravesend education, but Harriet loyally takes his side over the school’s. John and Dan fear what Owen could be capable of doing without the former inhibition of school rules. Owen didn’t plan to wreck Dolder’s car last time, but now he has intentionally destroyed the statue of Mary Magdalene. For such a small person, Owen operates in grandiose gestures.
John tells his friends to tell everyone to come to the meeting early, and Dan tells his friends on the faculty to come to the meeting, “If you only go to one more meeting for the rest of your life.” Dan and John worry about what this latest vandalism will mean for Owen’s college acceptances, and how the head of St. Michael’s will react. They go to see Rev. Merrill to ask him to talk to the head of St. Michael’s on Owen’s behalf. They find Owen sitting behind Merrill’s desk, fiddling with the desk drawers. When Merrill arrives, Owen retreats to his normal chair and seems to sneer at Merrill.
John and Dan want Owen’s message to be witnessed by as many people at the school as possible. Owen is jeopardizing his future to make this statement, so it clearly means a lot to him. St. Michael’s Church would be right to be mad at Owen for his willful destruction of their statue, but nevertheless Owen’s friends hope they’ll be merciful to him. Owen seems to know something about Merrill that makes him scorn the man.
Merrill tells Dan that the head of St. Michael’s Church and School is Father Findley. He doesn’t know what Owen has done, but Owen asks him to say a prayer for him at that morning’s meeting. Dan steers John out of the office so Owen and Merrill can talk. As they leave, John hears Merrill ask Owen if he’s had “that dream” again. Owen says he has, and he begins to sob. Merrill tells him that it’s only a dream, but Owen refuses to believe him. John doesn’t know what dream they’re talking about. Eventually Owen will tell him, and he will also tell Owen that it’s only a dream.
Dan gets the information they were looking for and leaves Owen and Merrill to their talk. Dan wants to do whatever he can on Owen’s behalf, but Dan also trusts Owen to know who he needs most. Dan tries to be a good father to Owen as well as to John. Owen hasn’t trusted anyone but Merrill with his disturbing “dream” yet. He seems to think Merrill would be the one most likely to believe him, suggesting that the dream is spiritual, but Merrill already showed with Owen’s first “vision” that he doubted the divine nature of Owen’s premonitions.
Walking back to the Main Academy Building, Dan and John see Randy kissing his wife, Sam, goodbye. Randy expects to lead a triumphant morning assembly, believing that he’s finally gotten the better of Owen. Little does he know that Owen will eventually defeat him, and that what awaits him in The Great Hall is the least of his embarrassments to come. The faculty will soon hand him a vote of “no confidence,” and the Board of Trustees will choose not to renew his appointment as headmaster. At commencement, the replacement valedictorian will refuse to deliver his speech as the crowd raises banners for Owen and chants his name, cheered by many of the faculty, members of the Board of Trustees, and parents who objected to the seizure of their sons’ wallets.
Owen succeeds in exposing White as a terrible headmaster, more concerned with grandstanding and abusing his power than running an enlightened educational institution. If The Voice couldn’t speak at graduation, nobody would. The school did not forget Owen and his message.
White is such a terrible man that he flouts the tradition among “good” schools like Gravesend Academy that headmasters shouldn’t further jeopardize the college admissions of seniors they’ve expelled. White goes to the schools that had accepted Owen and tells them about Owen’s record of selling fake draft cards, as well as his “virulently antireligious” behavior. The University of New Hampshire withdraws Owen’s scholarship, while Yale asks him to defer for a year and find meaningful employment while his employer reports to Yale on Owen’s “character and commitment.” Harvard also wants Owen to defer, but they specify that he will work for the Catholic Church during that time. Father Findley kindly does not press charges against Owen, and agrees to help his case with schools.
The gentlemen’s code among top private schools discourages headmasters from further damaging an expelled student’s chances at college admission—getting kicked out of school already hurts their chances enough. But White maliciously leaks the reasons for Owen’s expulsion to the schools he was accepted to. Even Findley, who was the most wronged by Owen’s stunt, felt compelled to help Owen rather than punish him. Owen’s gesture seemed to express so much anguish that he appears as much victim as villain to Findley.
Findley apparently knew Owen’s family, and was very sympathetic when he recognized who Owen’s parents were, without saying why. Owen considers taking Harvard’s offer, even talking with Findley about it. But even though he seems to like Findley more than he expected to, he says he can’t accept the deal because his parents would never understand it. He says he wants to go to the University of New Hampshire with John, anyway. He doesn’t have his scholarship anymore, but he finds another one: he enlists in the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC).
Findley seems familiar with the situation that turned the Meanys away from Catholicism. He doesn’t hold it against Owen—rather, he seems to take pity on him because of it. His kindness evidently makes Owen reconsider his Catholic prejudice, but his parents would still never let him work for them, so Harvard is out of the question. He decides to follow John once more.
In ROTC, the U.S. Army will pay for Owen to go to college while he takes some military courses and attends Basic Training while he’s in school. After graduating, he will become a second lieutenant and serve for four years of active duty, followed by two years on Reserve. In 1962, there are only 11,300 American military personnel in Vietnam, and none of them are in combat yet. Owen said he preferred this path because he wouldn’t have to wait a year to start college and he could be with John, but he doesn’t say anything about the six years he would be gone afterwards.
Owen decides he would rather go to state school on an ROTC scholarship, giving up six years of his life after college, than wait a year to go to Yale. His choice doesn’t really make sense, even if there wasn’t a war raging yet. He seems unable to break away from John and his family, including Tabitha, Harriet, Dan, and Hester.
Dan and John wonder how Owen passed the height and weight requirement. Owen proudly informs them that he only had to be five feet tall and weigh one hundred pounds—which he apparently reached by standing on his toes and eating lots of bananas and ice cream. John says he didn’t know the details of Owen’s recurring dream at this point—he would have been more worried for Owen if he had.
Ironically, Owen had the perfect grounds for exemption from military service that other young men could only dream of, but he sought desperately to pass the physical while they tried to fail. John later connects Owen’s dream to his surprising desire to join the military.
When Rev. Merrill enters The Great Hall, he is struck with horror at the sight of the decapitated and amputated statue. When White arrives, he is perfectly oblivious to the unusual crowd or the figure onstage, mistaking it for Merrill leading a prayer. Finally he realizes what he’s looking at, and he tries and fails to pick the statue up. He tries to lecture the students on the seriousness of crime, but they interrupt him to ask what the opening hymn is. Merrill climbs onstage and gives the hymn—one of Owen’s favorites. After the hymn, Merrill says, “Let us pray for Owen Meany.” He doesn’t say anything himself, but lets the students pray silently, for as long as they wish.
Merrill is much more observant and thoughtful than White. In Owen’s absence, the rest of the students speak up instead. Even Merrill finds the courage to speak up, even if he cannot find the words to pray for Owen. The quiet auditorium recalls the original Sunday school class, when Mrs. Walker would leave the children to silently reflect on the Bible. Perhaps the boys from that class remember how they treated Owen then, and in the silence, they can all imagine Owen’s voice.
White eventually says, “That’s enough,” but Merrill quietly replies, “I’ll say when it’s ‘enough.’” The students pray in silence until White has left the building—then Merrill says, “Amen.” John regrets that he didn’t know how to pray better back then. He wishes he could have prayed for Owen knowing what he knows now, such as what Owen wrote in his diary. He later saw how Owen had written his name the way he saw it on Scrooge’s grave: 1LT PAUL O. MEANY, JR. He wrote his name with an army rank, and the date of his death, over and over in the diary, even before he knew he would join the army. Owen later had an even more specific vision of his death, which came to him in a dream.
Merrill holds the students in silent prayer until White relents and leaves, once again powerless in his own auditorium. John feels that his prayers back then lacked the force and the purpose he would have prayed with today. If he had known that Owen always believed he would die in the army, he could have prayed to change his fate.