John says that up until the summer of 1962, he had always wanted to grow up and enjoy the freedoms of adulthood. He was tired of a long, humiliating adolescence when he couldn’t buy beer, couldn’t live by himself, couldn’t afford a car, and couldn’t get a girl to sleep with him. Owen, who knew when he would die, wasn’t in any rush to grow up. They spent the summer apart for the first time in 1962, and it made John afraid for the future—he found himself longing to stay a kid with Owen forever. He worked for Alfred in Sawyer Depot over the summer, not wanting to return to his summer job of giving tours of the academy after what the school did to Owen. Owen and Hester lived together in her apartment.
John suddenly realizes that growing up is not all that it was cracked up to be. Ironically, with adulthood finally comes the maturity to realize that the privileges of adulthood don’t matter as much as the personal ties that adulthood and its responsibilities threaten.
In the present day, Noah and Simon are married with their own families, and they take care of their parents. Alfred has had two heart bypass operations, but he’s all right. Martha still wants to know who John’s father is, but all John confides, teasing her, is, “Dan Needham is the best father a boy could have.” He and Noah and Simon still talk about Hester, and Alfred and Martha still believe she will come home for Christmas someday. But they never treated her the same way they treated the boys, and that made her furious. She never stopped using other things and people to fuel her fury.
Noah and Simon turned out just like Alfred, just as Alfred and Martha always dreamed. Yet by denying their daughter the same space to safely explore the world and reach her full potential, they created a child who saw home as a cage to escape instead of a peaceful haven. Her fierce anger at her parents’ unjust treatment of her created a hole that she could only fill with more anger.
Owen shared Hester’s sense of unfairness and injustice. He believed that God had designated him for a special role, and the knowledge that he had a mission to fulfill stripped him of his fun. When the rumor of JFK and Marilyn Monroe destroyed his idealism, he stopped doing anything for the fun of it. Hester was angry and indifferent to the world. While they spend the summer together, John can’t manage to have one successful date, despite all his cousins’ efforts—he’s too timid and awkward.
Owen and Hester are a good match, each full of disillusionment and bitterness. John doesn’t share their sense of grievance, but he isn’t particularly optimistic about the future, either. None of them know about the war to come at this point, but they have all witnessed the ways in which power in the hands of the arrogant and oblivious can be utterly ruinous.
Back in July in Canada, John discovers that it is possible to buy newspapers on the coast a short distance from Katherine’s island, making it harder to resist following the news. Katherine’s large, friendly family help to take his mind off of current events. Once John overhears Katherine’s husband tell her that John is a “nonpracticing homosexual,” which he says is not the same thing as being gay—“a nonpracticing homosexual doesn’t always know what he is.” John seems to agree, thinking to himself, “it means I don’t know what I am!”
John can never escape the outrageous news that obsesses him. He knows the news isn’t good for him, only raising his temper and making him cynical instead of open to God’s benevolence. His faith in the goodness of others is frequently in doubt, which could be one reason why he has never had a serious relationship. But it’s also possible that he has always felt afraid or ashamed of his own sexuality, whether because of his father’s lust for women or because he’s not entirely straight. Maybe he’s simply confused, or asexual.
Being on the island makes John think of what the land of Gravesend must have been like before Watahantowet sold it to Rev. John Wheelwright—before America’s “murderous deceptions” and “unthinking carelessness” nearly ruined the land. He thinks back to the summer of 1962, when he and Owen sent each other letters talking about their jobs and their plans to perfect the shot.
John pictures Gravesend as it might have looked when it belonged to Watahantowet, before the Americans took it. Thinking of Watahantowet and America’s evils always makes John think of Owen.
One day in August, Simon had a minor injury while logging and the boys had to take him to the ER. A man who was drinking a bottle of beer when he crashed his car is also in the ER with his mouth all cut up from the glass. He tells them that Marilyn Monroe died of an overdose. John calls Owen that night, and Owen says that Marilyn “WAS JUST LIKE OUR WHOLE COUNTRY…VERY BEAUTIFUL, MAYBE A LITTLE STUPID, MAYBE A LOT SMARTER THAN SHE SEEMED…I THINK SHE WANTED TO BE GOOD…SHE WAS TRICKED, SHE GOT USED, SHE WAS USED UP.”
Owen thinks of Marilyn as the embodiment of America itself—extremely bright but extremely troubled, and vulnerable to being led astray. Her tragically premature end foretells a dark future for the country. Owen himself fears being “USED UP.”
Back in July in Canada, John is still reading the newspapers. Owen believed that the most discouraging thing about the anti-war protests was that most of the protesters were only involved for selfish reasons—because the draft placed their lives at stake. He thought that if young Americans weren’t being unwillingly drafted to fight, they wouldn’t care what their country did. John thinks of the lack of uproar over Reagan’s illegal and immoral actions in Nicaragua. Owen claimed, “THE ONLY WAY YOU CAN GET AMERICANS TO NOTICE ANYTHING IS TO TAX THEM OR DRAFT THEM OR KILL THEM.” John sees a mink and thinks of Mitzy Lish. Larry Lish has become a well-known reporter who writes with a self-righteous, moralistic tone.
John attributes the lack of public outcry over Reagan’s wrongs to Americans’ indifference to everything that does not threaten their own livelihoods. If there had been no mandatory draft forcing all young men to fight in Vietnam, the country wouldn’t have paid as much attention to the casualties and atrocities amassed in the war. Self-absorbed and self-interested, Americans are blind to the suffering of others (or so John believes). They rarely live up to their national ideals, only deploying empty talk about moral principles when it’s convenient.
In the fall of 1962, John and Owen became freshmen at the University of New Hampshire. They still lived at home. Compared to the rigorous Gravesend Academy, they both found the university to be easy. John took pride in finally getting good grades, while Owen became lazy and only maintained the grades he needed to stay in ROTC. John even gets better grades on papers than Owen, whose professors don’t indulge his eccentric style like the teachers at Gravesend used to. College professors only care about their own subjects, not about “the whole boy.”
On the surface, not much changes when John and Owen start college. They haven’t moved out or gone their separate ways—but the university is very different from the academy. Owen was used to getting special treatment for being the cleverest and most original student. At college, professors have larger classes to teach, and they don’t care for Owen’s unconventional voice. Owen seems lost, his ambition gone.
Owen doesn’t stand out in the large student body at the university like he always did in the small town of Gravesend. He only stands out for having a conspicuously old truck among his classmates’ identical new Volkswagen Beetles. He and John become friends with all of Hester’s friends, which leaves them friendless when Hester graduates. In October, the Cuban Missile Crisis unfolds, but Owen isn’t scared—he knows he isn’t going to die yet, so nuclear war isn’t about to break out.
Owen’s unusual body doesn’t make him special anymore, either. Ironically, his lower-class origins are more glaring at the public state school than at the private academy. People aren’t wearing standardized uniforms anymore, and Harriet can’t subsidize a nice car for Owen like she could a nice wardrobe. John and Owen end up with only each other for friends once again.
A guy who wants to date Hester asks Owen how he knows there isn’t going to be a war, and Owen says there will be a war, just not now. The guy calls Owen little, and Hester claims that Owen has “the biggest penis ever.” John thinks that she’s right—from what he glimpsed in the gym locker room, Owen’s “doink” is at least disproportionately large to his body. John and Owen spend the summer of 1963 practicing the shot again after they got rusty. They both work for Owen’s father that summer—John in the monument shop, Owen in the quarries.
Owen alludes to his mysterious knowledge of the future, which seems arrogant to others. Other guys, jealous of Owen’s relationship with Hester, try to belittle him, but Hester defends his manhood, satisfying the curiosity of anyone who wondered if Owen’s “doink” was as tiny as the rest of him. After freshman year, they return to practicing the shot. John thinks of it as a token from their past, while Owen thinks of it in terms of the future.
John is jealous of Owen’s tan and muscles, and suspects Owen of interfering with his plan to grow his own muscles. Owen just says that if John wants to work in the quarries out of vanity, he’ll end up crushed beneath the granite. Whenever a customer comes to order a gravestone, Owen comes to take the order, because he is extremely considerate of the grieving family’s wishes. Owen also handles difficult pieces of stonecutting on the diamond wheel, a large saw with an extremely sharp blade studded with pieces of diamond. It’s more a scalpel than a saw. John thinks that given how much time Owen spends working on graves in the monument shop, it makes sense for him to have a vision of his own gravestone.
John wants Owen’s tanned and toned physique, but he doesn’t seem to understand that Owen pays a high price in difficult and dangerous labor for his enviable build. Owen seems to be adept at every aspect of the granite trade, from the crude mining of the heavy raw material to the sensitive emotional conversations and careful craftwork for gravestones. John rationalizes Owen’s vision of his own grave by attributing it to too much time spent carving headstones.
John has another disappointing summer in terms of dates. He recalls, “I was twenty-one and I was still a Joseph; I was a Joseph then, and I’m just a Joseph now.”
John implies that he has never lost his virginity or become special in any way—he is a “Joseph,” the man who didn’t father Mary’s child, the redundant and impotent bystander.
Back in Canada in July, John still can’t quit reading newspapers. He is fascinated by a story about black holes, which have the potential to engulf entire galaxies. The black holes are two million light-years away from Earth. John thinks, “That is about as far away from Earth as Owen Meany is; that is about as far away from Earth as I would like to be.” JFK is probably about that far away now; he was assassinated one day in November, 1963.
John is captivated by the idea of a hole that could swallow the world, putting humanity out of its misery. It’s hard to believe that scientists could know about phenomena so far away from Earth, as utterly unreachable as the dead are from the living. John thinks that he would like to be far away from Earth. He’s not explicitly wishing to be dead, but he hates being bound to what he sees as an awful planet.
John thinks that “television is at its most solemnly self-serving and at its mesmerizing best when it is depicting the untimely deaths of the chosen and the golden.” Bobby Kennedy’s assassination follows five years later. Hester says, “Television gives good disaster.” Owen goes to see Rev. Merrill more after Kennedy’s death. He still won’t tell John about his dream, and Hester won’t say what it is, either. John also sees Owen at St. Michael’s.
John connects television’s glorification of spectacle to the public assassinations that characterized the 1960s. President Kennedy, his brother Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr. were all assassinated in that decade, as one sensationalized murder seemed to inspire another. Owen appears to wrestle with his faith after the President’s death.
Owen says he’s been talking to Father Findley and working on replacing the statue of Mary Magdalene that he vandalized. He wants Findley to get rid of the archway around the statue to make it a less tempting target for kids like him to aim at. John imagines that Owen is talking about his dream to everyone but him. In 1964, Owen tells John about the military’s activity in Vietnam: there’s a lot of turnover among the leading Generals, and President Johnson orders the withdrawal of American dependents from part of the country. The Tonkin Gulf Resolution passes, allowing the president to declare war without declaring it.
Owen seems to repent for destroying the Catholic statue. He’s even willing to help make another one himself, despite his former dislike for manmade objects that represent works of God. John feels hurt by Owen’s hesitation to confide in him, when he has shared his every fear and shame to Owen. Owen uses his military education to interpret the ambiguous news of the situation in Vietnam being reported to the public. Signs point to a dangerously convoluted, escalating conflict.
That summer, a new statue of Mary Magdalene is finally installed at St. Michaels. Owen successfully got rid of the archway, leaving the statue alone on a pedestal. The statue is no longer whitewashed, but a granite-gray color that Owen says is more “NATURAL.” Its pedestal is shaped to look as if the statue is rising from the grave. Owen says Father Findley is pleased by it, while Hester thinks it’s disturbing—she’s fed up with Owen’s preoccupation with death. John prefers the new statue to the old.
Two years after destroying the sacred statue, Owen replaces it with his own version. As always, he still gets his way. The new statue is humbler than the previous one, not posed in an incongruous decorative archway and carved of gleaming white marble. This statue is a testament to God’s power over death.
Hester is having a tough year, as a college grad still living in her college apartment in her college town, still working her college job as a waitress at a lobster restaurant. She doesn’t like driving to work, especially since all she has is a car that was used even before her two brothers drove it, so Owen picks her up after her shifts, which usually end late at night. The late nights contribute to Owen’s declining academics. He doesn’t take any interest in his studies.
John doesn’t try to understand why Hester is staying in the same apartment and waitressing instead of pursuing a career. Like her parents, he doesn’t seem to have very high expectations for her, but one would think that she would want to prove them all wrong instead of languishing in a dead-end job. She is heavily dependent on Owen, which also seems out of character for her.
In the summer of 1964, John agrees to keep practicing the shot if Owen will finally let him work in the quarries for the last month of the summer. For the first time they successfully make the shot in under three seconds, and then the goal becomes to always make it under three seconds. They practice at the outdoor court at St. Michael’s when the Gravesend Academy gym is occupied. Sometimes Owen and the nuns wave to each other, to John’s shock, although Owen says the nuns still give him the shivers. The statue of Mary Magdalene watches over them. When they practice in the fall, Owen brushes snow off of her.
John uses Owen’s dedication to the shot to secure the right to work in the quarry. Owen is dependent on John to pull off the shot, so he doesn’t have much choice, but it’s fair that if Owen can demand so much of John’s time for the shot, John can get the chance to work on his muscles. Things have changed over the years since they first began practicing the shot—Owen is now friendly with the nuns he used to recoil from, and he cleans the statue he used to vandalize.
In the fall, the darker gray color of the statue disappears in the shadows. John once asked Owen if the statue resembled the angel Owen once thought he saw. Owen says no, because the angel he saw was in motion, reaching out with her hands—that’s why he knew it wasn’t the dummy. The boys practice the shot until it grows so dark outside that they can’t see the basket anymore, or the statue. Owen asks John if he believes the statue is still there, even though he can’t see it. John insists that yes, the statue is there, whether he can see it or not. Owen says that’s how he thinks of God.
The more “NATURAL” color of Mary Magdalene’s statue makes her less visibly divine. She even vanishes from sight like the unseen miracle that tests people’s faith. However, it was seeing the supposedly unmistakable angel that first convinced Owen that he was part of a divine plan, so he has some visual proof behind his belief.
Back in Canada in July, Katherine tells John to stop reading the newspapers. She points out that it’s been a long time since they talked together about their respective beliefs, which they used to spend hours discussing. John is ashamed to tell her how many Sunday services he’s missed this summer. When he first moved to Canada, he thought it would be easy to be a Canadian—it would be just like living in a northern state like Maine or Minnesota. But he discovers that Toronto is not as snowy, or as provincial, as the small American towns he’s familiar with. Canadians were polite and sympathetic to Americans fleeing the draft or renouncing their country. They also thought the Vietnam War was stupid and wrong.
Katherine can see that reading the newspapers is bad for John’s faith, filling him with anger and despair. John once expected Canada to be filled with people like the residents of Gravesend—people accustomed to a degree of isolation, with a tendency to be small-minded and suspicious of outsiders—but the people he met in Toronto were surprisingly kind and better informed about the war than many Americans.
In 1968, the Union of American Exiles was formed in Canada. They were not very radical compared to protesters in America, including Hester, who rioted, getting herself arrested and her nose broken. Most of the American deserters in Canada were not radical, either, only guys who had been drafted or had enlisted and hated the service. Some claimed they deserted because the war was “insupportable,” but John suspects them of saying this as a politically acceptable excuse. He says that moving to Canada was not the best way to beat the draft—there were other ways. Becoming Canadian did make a “very forceful political statement,” though; it was “resistance as exile.” But John admits that he never suffered; he avoided death in the war, and befriended many Canadians.
The American exiles in Canada usually left America out of self-interest rather than as a principled statement. On the other hand, most people like Hester could afford to stay and riot because their lives and freedoms were not at immediate risk like the people who could be arrested for desertion. Still, leaving America and its problems behind was not the only way to escape to the draft. Choosing exile had some public impact, testifying to people’s willingness to give up their families and homes, but other people made greater sacrifices to escape the war. John was one of them, but he doesn’t pretend to have suffered too badly, either.
As John says, “we Wheelwrights have rarely suffered.” Schools in Canada were impressed by his degrees and his junior teaching experience at Gravesend Academy, so he had no trouble getting hired. He met Canon Campbell, who welcomed him into the Anglican Church. He picked up helpful connections, as Wheelwrights are wont to do, and tried to assimilate, thinking it would be easy. He refrained from complaining about Canadian hypocrisy, unlike other American expats who criticized Canada for profiting off the war by selling hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of ammunition and other war supplies to the U.S. They said that Canada was making more money, per capita, from exporting arms than any other nation in the world.
John’s privilege continues to smooth his way, even in a new country. He recognizes that he is more fortunate than most, to have settled in so easily. He wanted to leave his old life behind and become a true Canadian, not continue to obsess over the war and the Western powers—including Canada—who supported it.
Dissatisfied Americans in Canada also pointed out that black Americans didn’t come to Canada in the same number as their white counterparts, and the ones who came didn’t stay, due to how poorly Canadians treated them on account of their race. John stayed silent on the subject of Canada’s flaws, not wanting to be an angry American hung up on American issues. John says, “I must have believed that my anger and my loneliness would simply go away—if I simply let them go.” He skipped the rallies and marches, the folk songs and protest songs, the beards and long hair, the free love. Knowing that Owen sacrificed and suffered so much more than these hippies, he was not sympathetic to their imagined distress.
Canada is not a utopia immune from the faults of its southern neighbor. Just like Americans, Canadians, too, are racist, and Canada’s material support of the Vietnam War makes them complicit in its terrible toll. John didn’t hold these failings against his adopted country, but tried to make peace with an imperfect place. He wanted to forget history, but as readers have seen, ultimately he could not help but remember.
John says his experience followed the truism that no one is more zealous than the convert, nobody more patriotic than the immigrant. He wanted to believe the best of his new church and new country, and not admit that they shared many of the same flaws of his old ones. He looks down on protestors for having it so much easier than Owen and the soldiers who actually fought and died. Hester was big on protests and hippie culture—she had the grungy folk singer look and a pretty voice like her mother (although not as pretty as Tabitha’s). Unlike Tabitha, Hester didn’t believe in learning to sing, but simply voiced what was inside her. Owen helped her to write songs. Owen thought that it was sad to go to Canada, causing Hester to scream at him that going to Vietnam was a lot sadder. Owen said that he didn’t want to die where it was cold; John later knew he planned to die where it was warm.
Eventually John realized that his idealized view of Canada was unsustainable. He had been learning from Mrs. Hoyt that America was not above criticism, and neither is any other country. Rationally, he shared protestors’ anti-war views, but he felt emotionally alienated from activists who couldn’t understand Owen’s courage and sacrifice. Hester sang protest songs, but John thinks even she couldn’t understand what she was writing about, though they loved and lost the same person. John seems dead set against the idea that a woman could understand Owen as well as he does. Hester can’t even take credit for her music; Owen wrote her lyrics for her.
In 1965, most Americans began to realize that the conflict in Vietnam was becoming problematic. The military began “BOMBING THE SHIT” out of North Vietnam, in Owen’s translation of military-ese, then began to “SEARCH AND DESTROY, SEARCH AND DESTROY.” Owen observed that with no end to the relentless guerilla conflict in sight, it was more like “DESTROY AND DESTROY.” John can’t imagine Harry Hoyt effectively searching and destroying “anything”; Owen remarks, “HAS IT OCCURRED TO YOU THAT VIETNAM IS FULL OF HARRY HOYTS?” Owen wants to go to Vietnam “TO KEEP THE HARRY HOYTS FROM GETTING THEIR HEADS BLOWN OFF.”
Even if the government and the military aren’t being upfront about the situation, it’s becoming clear to those Americans paying attention that the conflict is deteriorating. Their goals are vague and unfeasible in practice. The largely young, uneducated American soldiers in Vietnam, like Harry Hoyt, will struggle to implement the impossible aims the military sets. Owen says he wants to protect such clueless soldiers from dying in vain.
Owen’s Military Science professor thinks that Owen is too small for a combat branch, and Owen tries to impress him by excelling in his classes. Owen believes that if he can become the number-one graduate from his ROTC unit, he will surely be assigned to a combat branch. John scoffs at Owen’s desire to be a hero in such a stupid war—he tells him that if he’s really smarter than Harry, he’d be smart enough to pick desk work over combat. John even goes to Owen’s Military Science professor and tells him that he’s right to think that Owen isn’t suitable for combat—not only due to his diminutive size, but also due to his emotional instability.
Owen actually wants to go into combat, to John and Hester’s disbelief. They are horrified to think of losing Owen to such a pointless war, and bewildered by his determination to be sent to the front. John thinks that Owen is desperate to be a hero. John is equally desperate to keep Owen from throwing his life away in Vietnam, enough to go behind Owen’s back and undermine his quest to receive a combat designation. He believes that Owen’s history of grandiose thinking and dramatic actions suggests poor decision-making.
Owen responds to the professor’s doubts in him by giving up smoking and taking up running. He’s in good shape by the time he leaves for Basic Training the summer before senior year. Nonetheless, he fails the obstacle course—he can’t get over the wall. He still has the highest marks in academics and leadership, but he won’t be ranked number one, and won’t have his choice of a combat branch guaranteed. Owen is so upset by his failure that John feels guilty for trying to undermine him—but he still doesn’t want Owen to be assigned to a combat branch.
Owen may technically have been tall enough to get into the military, but he simply isn’t tall enough to clear the wall all recruits must face in the Basic Training obstacle course. He cannot will away all of his physical limitations. He is devastated to have his combat worthiness in doubt, but his friends are relieved.
In the fall of 1965, the start of their senior year, protests against U.S. policy in Vietnam were getting underway. Hester must have attended about half the protests across the country, John says. He’s typically undecided—he thinks the protestors have a lot more sense than the supporters of U.S. policy, but he thinks that Hester’s crowd are “losers and jerks.” He doesn’t understand why Owen, always quick to call bullshit, wants to go to Vietnam so desperately. “Did he want to be a hero so badly that he would have gone anywhere?” John wonders.
As protests break out, Hester joins the cause, but John holds back, reluctant to ally himself with the type of people who are most active in the movement. He thinks opposing the war is the smart thing to do, and wonders why Owen is suddenly content to go along with such a misguided institution as the military. After all, Owen is the one so fond of quoting, “WOE UNTO THEM WHO CALL EVIL GOOD.”
Owen is told in the fall that he is destined for the Adjunct General’s Corps—not a combat branch. He tries to appeal the orders. Meanwhile, Harry Hoyt dies of a snake bite, and Mrs. Hoyt starts advertising free draft-counseling advice to young men in Gravesend and Durham, the university town. The university students are more receptive, nearing the end of their college draft exemptions upon graduation. Although John is going to grad school, student deferments will end during his first year for any students less than two years along, making him eligible for the draft.
Owen is officially spared from the fighting, but he is anything but grateful. Mrs. Hoyt, having lost her son to a war she never believed in, is determined to make sure that other young men eligible to fight are fully informed about the conflict they’re facing. If they would rather not give their lives in such a short-sighted war, they should have a choice. Owen is well-informed and he has the choice to stay out of the war, but still he chooses to fight.
Mrs. Hoyt tells John about his options for avoiding the draft: convincingly faking a history of mental illness like tragic Buzzy Thurston, or applying for the Peace Corps and going someplace like Tanzania. John is paralyzed by the awful choices: “Imagine this: you’re a university student, you’re a virgin—do you believe it when someone tells you that you have to make up your mind between Vietnam and Tanzania?” Harriet and Dan urge him to find a way to get out of going to Vietnam—to do the opposite of Owen, for once. “This time Owen is making a mistake,” Dan says.
Unfortunately, most young men don’t have Owen’s opportunity to avoid combat. Their alternatives to Vietnam are limited to extreme self-sabotage or foreign exile. Everyone in John’s life wants him to avoid Vietnam, but they are powerless to give him a way out. John doesn’t want to go to war, but he doesn’t want to leave his home, either. Yet he can find no other choice.
Everyone thinks Owen is crazy for chasing a combat-branch assignment. John asks him why he wants to be a hero and go to Vietnam, and Owen says that he doesn’t particularly want to go—he just knows he will. He claims, “I DON’T WANT TO BE A HERO…IT’S THAT I AM A HERO. I KNOW THAT’S WHAT I’M SUPPOSED TO BE.”
Owen struggles to explain himself properly to John. He says that he knows he is meant to be a hero. All signs from the universe seem to point to the opposite conclusion—that he is not meant to go to Vietnam—but he refuses to relinquish this belief.
While Owen and John argue, Hester is cooking dinner, which John says is always carelessly prepared and unappetizing. Before Owen can explain how he “knows” what he knows, Hester runs out of the room and shuts herself in the bathroom, where they can hear her being sick even over the sound of the bath she runs to drown it out. She yells that she isn’t listening to Owen’s shit again. John says that if Owen is talking about his “dream,” surely it’s only a dream. Owen says that Rev. Merrill and Father Findley have told him the same thing. He tells John again that John has no faith. He says he wouldn’t request a combat assignment if he wasn’t serious.
John is extremely critical of Hester’s cooking abilities for someone who never helps in the kitchen himself. If he is sick of poor cooking, he could easily try to make something himself, but he is content to sit back and criticize while a woman makes him dinner. Upset with Owen, Hester runs out of the room and throws up—she is going crazy over Owen’s determination to die in the war. Owen doesn’t react to her hysterics, only continues talking to John.
John prompts Owen to explain the dream. Owen says he saves Vietnamese children, not soldiers, in his dream—he wouldn’t go to such lengths just to save soldiers, he says. John says Owen is being childish to believe he dreamed his destiny; Owen says his faith is more selective than John thinks it is. He gets his diary and reads from it an account of his vision—an edited version, John later realizes. Owen describes hearing the aftermath of an explosion, seeing pieces of debris in the air, and smelling smoke. Around him, children sit up and hold their ears. They don’t speak English. When they look at Owen, it’s clear to him that he saved them and that they’re scared for him.
For the first time, Owen says he is meant to save children. He contradicts what he said earlier, when he told John he wanted to go Vietnam in order to save the poor Harry Hoyts of the world. Apparently he wasn’t being wholly honest before—it has taken him years to trust John with the content of his dream, and even now he withholds certain major facts. Perhaps John’s skepticism and lack of faith have discouraged Owen from confiding in him—or it could be the fact that John is in the dream as well.
Owen continues describing his vision, saying that nuns appear and one of them takes him into her arms. Blood spurts onto her wimple and her face, but she isn’t afraid. The blood is Owen’s. She makes the sign of the cross over Owen—when he tries to grab her hand and stop her, it’s as if he doesn’t have any arms. Then he leaves, and finds himself looking down at the scene from above. He says his body looks like it did when he was swaddled up as the Baby Jesus. He keeps rising higher, higher than the palm trees. The sky is beautiful, but the air is hotter than anywhere he’s ever been—he’s not in New Hampshire.
Owen’s dream is incredibly, realistically detailed. At the same time, it seems to follow a dream logic, where certain preoccupations that haunt one’s waking life reappear in one’s dreams. It is natural, perhaps, that Owen would dream of saving children when his own childhood was so unhappy, for nuns to appear when he has always been fixated with them, and for him to lose his arms when he has been obsessed with armlessness for years.
John says again that it’s just a dream. He points out that Owen’s touchy feelings about Catholicism are probably the reason he imagines a nun as his personal Angel of Death. Similarly, he dreams about saving Vietnamese children someplace with palm trees because of the war. But Owen doesn’t budge an inch. When Hester comes out of the bathroom, she tries to beat sense into Owen, putting him in a headlock and punching him until John has to drag her off and she attacks him too. They have to sit on her until she subsides. She screams at Owen that he wouldn’t go to Vietnam if he loved her, and kicks him out.
John also thinks that Owen’s dream is just a natural, random dream rather than a special premonition. But Owen stubbornly ignores all the sound reasons people try to use against him. Hester resorts to using violence to finally make Owen see reason. She would rather hurt him herself than see him die from a delusion. She always lost to her brothers in fights, and she loses to Owen and John. She thinks that Owen doesn’t love her enough to stay alive for her sake.
John and Owen go to the breakwater and Rye Harbor, then to the ER so Owen can get stitches for his lip. At the hospital, John realizes that Owen doesn’t have any insurance. He tells the hospital to bill Harriet. When they get to Harriet’s house, she doesn’t believe that Owen could have fallen down the stairs or gotten assaulted by delinquents at the beach, so Owen says that John accidentally hurt him while roughhousing, unwilling to tell Harriet that Hester attacked him.
Hester has pummeled Owen so badly that he needs to go to the hospital, just as John feared she might do all those years ago when Owen first met the Eastmans. Owen still protects Hester from Harriet’s outrage. Conservative Harriet would have been scandalized to learn that her granddaughter, not her grandson, was throwing punches.
Owen and John stay up watching a movie that reminds John of the Orange Grove. John asks Owen if he remembers the play they were going to write about the Lady in Red. Owen says he started writing it a few times even after John didn’t want to do it, but he found that making up a story was harder than he thought. He urges John to learn to follow things through until the end, instead of giving up. John never even looked for Buster Freebody in the phone book, while Owen called up all the Freebodys to see if they knew him, and even called up all the places offering live music to see if they’d heard of him. He spent so much time making secret calls on the phone that Hester thought he must be cheating on her.
Owen, the prolific author of so many persuasive editorials, struggles to come up with a good story. He still made more of an effort to uncover John’s father than John himself did, and he warns John that he needs to pursue his own goals instead of waiting for everything to fall into place. Owen wanted to fulfill his vision of saving Vietnamese children, so he tried to put himself in the best position to do so instead of just waiting for the opportunity to arise. He also thinks God will show John his father, but John can still look for himself.
Owen and John try to plan a trip for the summer—John isn’t working before he starts to teach classes part-time in the fall and Owen is taking some time off before the Army. Owen wants to go someplace with palm trees, but can’t afford to go anywhere so far. They walk to visit Tabitha’s grave. When they get back, Hester is asleep on the couch. She kisses Owen softly and apologizes for giving him stitches. Soon they graduate—John earns a B.A. in English, cum laude, and Owen earns a B.S. in Geology and the rank of second lieutenant. Owen is given a post in communications command in Arizona. He continues to appeal his assignment, but John is relieved to think that the military “was not as easy to manipulate as a children’s Christmas pageant.”
Owen wants to go someplace with palm trees because he dreamed of them, and his dream is never far from his mind. Hester apologizes for his injuries and the couple seems to make peace with Owen’s fate. After all, he is not set to go to Vietnam anytime soon. She can forget his dream for a while, even if he cannot. Owen can still try to win an overseas assignment, but he is a single soldier in a force of hundreds of thousands—as John says, it’s not the same thing as getting his way in a town Christmas pageant. Owen’s voice might go unheard.
The night before Gravesend Academy’s graduation, Owen recites his old valedictorian speech to the empty chairs lined up on the lawn. He won’t tell John what it says. They head up to Sawyer Depot for their vacation instead of someplace tropical. Martha and Alfred are polite to Owen, but not warm. Noah is in the Peace Corps, teaching Forest Management to Nigerians instead of risking the draft. Simon has a draft deferment from all the skiing accidents that took their toll on his knees. Martha and Alfred respect Owen’s decision to go to Vietnam, although Martha questions the war’s morality. Owen impresses them by giving a breakdown of the conflict and saying he would like to see the situation for himself.
Four years later, Owen finally delivers the speech he was meant to give, but no one hears it. He is crossing off the experiences he has always wanted to have as if he is preparing to die, even though he’s only going to Arizona for now. Owen’s supposed interest seeing the war for himself is another reason for going to Vietnam that sounds noble, like saving Harry Hoyt, but it seems more likely that he is still trying to understand his own purpose in God’s plan.
After spending a night with the Eastmans, John and Owen stay in the boathouse at Loveless Lake, then camp at Lake Francis. Before returning to Gravesend they drive up to the Canadian border and look at the other side of the border. Harriet hosts a small going-away party before Owen reports to his training for the administrative branch. Owen makes John and Hester stand in a circle with him, holding hands, and tells them, “DON’T BE AFRAID.” In his letters later that summer, he sounds bored—he says his work is mostly writing, like he used to do at Gravesend Academy, not anything he learned in ROTC or Basic Training.
John and Owen camp out, making the most of their last summer together. They stop in sight of Canada, giving John a glimpse of his future. Owen is as far-sighted as ever. He reassures them with his singular authority that they have nothing to fear. Presumably he means they have nothing to fear for themselves, since he still believes he will die in the war. His belief is tested by the mundanity of his army duties.
John starts grad school, and moves into Hester’s apartment when her last roommate moves out. She seems to know a lot of guys, but she never brings them back to the apartment or spend the night at their places. John discovers that Hester is not actually a slob; she keeps the apartment very neat, and “it was only herself she treated carelessly.” Owen seems to really like his fort in Arizona, although he’s still gunning for a transfer overseas. By December, he’s working as a casualty assistance officer, meeting with grieving families with his usual tact. When bodies of Arizona servicemen came back to America from Vietnam, Owen flies to California to collect the bodies and escort them home.
John, who once had to repeat the ninth grade, is now happily getting a graduate degree. Hester’s faithfulness to Owen is surprising to John, as is her tidiness. She can take good care of her living space, and even make the effort to clean up after John, but she won’t make the same effort for herself. She seems to struggle with self-hatred, a consequence of being forever treated as her brothers’ inferior. Owen finds himself doing the same work he did in his family’s business, dealing in death and grief.
Owen comes home for Christmas and he tells John and Hester about his work. He and John practice the basketball shot. Owen, John, and Hester discuss how the war could end, but they “talked like the war itself, going nowhere.” John sleeps over at Harriet’s and Dan’s to give Owen and Hester some privacy. Everyone plans to take the train up to Sawyer Depot for Christmas, until they realize that train service from Gravesend to Sawyer Depot isn’t running anymore, so they spend the holiday apart, after all. Owen talks to John about what John’s going to do after he loses his student deferment. He says that if John wants to do things his own way, he’s going to have to make a decision, and show some courage.
The Christmases at Sawyer Depot are forever lost to the past. John and Owen cannot forget that they are stuck in the present, in the middle of a never-ending war. Despite sleeping in the bed of his youth once again, John cannot retreat back into childhood, but must face the difficult choices of being an adult in wartime.
John says he wants to keep being a student, and become a teacher. Owen says he had better find the courage to do something now, because courage won’t help him after his physical. John picks Thomas Hardy for his master’s thesis, but he doesn’t pick an alternative to Vietnam. He writes to Owen that he doesn’t understand what he means by showing courage—none of the options besides going to war require bravery. He says his lack of faith makes him feel that nothing he decides to do will make any difference in the random chaos of life. “What good does courage do—when what happens next is up for grabs?” Owen tells him not to so be cynical.
John voices his ambition to become a teacher, like Dan. Owen tells him he has to decide what to do before it’s too late, but John is still unwilling to take the drastic step of going into exile. He blames his poor faith for his passivity—why take a risk when it could easily be for nothing? When the world can take his mother away from him in an instant, all of his hopes could be undone just as swiftly. Yet Owen refuses to believe that everything must unfold in the same tragic way.
John gets told to report to his pre-induction physical. He calls Owen, who tells him not to report for anything until he gets there. Owen comes back as soon as he gets a leave, and he calls John when he’s at the monument shop, asking him to come over. At the shop, they each have a beer. John notices that the diamond wheel saw has a new blade. Owen says that he boiled the blade and wiped it with alcohol. He did the same thing to the wooden block below the saw. John finally realizes what Owen plans to do. He sees sterile bandages and a tourniquet waiting. Owen explains that according to Army regulations, you can’t be physically qualified to serve if you’re missing one joint from your thumb or more than one joint from your index, middle, or ring finger.
John calls Owen for answers, as he has always done, and Owen takes charge, as he always does. He invites John to the shop that trades in death, where they will try to figure out how to save John’s life. Owen is a figure of both life and death, the newborn and the ghost. Like Hester, Owen would rather spill John’s blood than see him die in the war. John will have to sacrifice his finger to ensure his safety. This also means losing part of an arm, like Watahantowet’s totem.
Owen says that the safest thing to do is to remove John’s trigger finger, and John agrees. John is terrified, however, as Owen shows him how to hold his hand on the cutting board. Owen tells John that this will take guts and faith, like looking for his father. He reminds John of how his lust disturbs him, and how he thinks it comes from his father. Owen says that John’s father is probably cowardly, as well, another thing that John dislikes in himself. He tells John that his mother was never afraid.
Cutting off the finger John would use to shoot and kill is a powerful anti-war statement as well as an effective way to become ineligible to fight. He also symbolically loses the ability to figuratively pull the trigger, in the sense of taking decisive action. John has never been good at that. Owen can see this in him, and he tells John to be more like Tabitha, who fearlessly followed her own path.
Owen tells John to scrub his hand and rub it with alcohol, and they’ll be at the hospital in less than 10 minutes. John doesn’t know his blood type, but Owen does—it’s the same as his. He says John can have some of his blood if he needs it. He reveals that John appears in his dream about his death, and he wants to keep John out of it by keeping him out of Vietnam. He tells John it’s his choice to go along or not.
Owen has carefully planned a sterile, surgical amputation of John’s finger. There’s nothing he wouldn’t do for John—repeat a year of school for him, teach him to read, give him blood, and now save him from Owen’s own sad destiny. He can accept every other demand of fate except for putting his friend in danger.
John puts his finger on the chopping block, and Owen puts on his safety goggles. He tells John to look him in the eyes so he won’t get dizzy. The only thing John has to do is stay perfectly still. John says he can’t do it, but Owen tells him not to be afraid; he can do anything he wants, if he believes he can. “I LOVE YOU…NOTHING BAD IS GOING TO HAPPEN TO YOU—TRUST ME,” Owen says before he slices.
Owen tells John that he can do anything if he believes he can; what he means here is that John must believe in Owen, and his reassurance that John will come to no harm. John does trust Owen, and it is perhaps his first real leap of faith in life.