John Wheelwright, an American living in Toronto in 1987, tells the story of his life as he explains how he became a Christian because of his childhood friend Owen Meany. The present-day timeline of the book spans from January to September, as John weaves his childhood memories of growing up in New Hampshire with an account of his life today in Canada.
John and Owen grow up as best friends in the small New England town of Gravesend, New Hampshire. John comes from one of the town’s founding families, and grows up in a traditionally dignified, well-to-do household with servants and a large family fortune. Owen grows up in a poor working-class household, and lives in his family’s granite quarry. The two boys attend to Sunday school together, since John’s mother, Tabitha Wheelwright, recently decided that they will switch to Owen’s church. In Sunday school, the kids make a game of picking up the weightless Owen and passing him around overhead, because he is so much smaller than the rest of his peers. He also has a strange voice that sounds like a permanent high-pitched scream whenever he speaks. The town thinks that Owen was stunted from his exposure to so much granite dust when he was born, but Owen believes his unusual size and voice come from God.
John’s mother became pregnant with him after she had a fling with a man she met on the train to Boston, where she took singing lessons once a week. She never told her family who the man was, and she continued living with her mother, Harriet, after giving birth to John. As John grows up, Owen becomes like a second son to Tabitha. His parents are eccentric, emotionally distant, and don’t show him much affection—Mr. Meany is too busy in the mines, and Mrs. Meany is an extreme recluse who is likely mentally ill.
When John was six, Tabitha met another man on the train, and this time she married him. John’s stepfather, Dan Needham, taught history and theater at the local private high school, Gravesend Academy. When they got married, Tabitha switched from the Congregational Church, led by Rev. Lewis Merrill, to the Episcopalian Church, which Owen attended. Owen’s family had once been Catholics, but the Catholic Church had somehow offended them. Owen has always been very religious, and he has visions of angels before Tabitha’s death. When Owen and John are eleven, Tabitha is tragically killed in a freak accident by a baseball that Owen hit.
Later that year, Owen plays the Ghost of Christmas Future in A Christmas Carol and the baby Jesus in the church Christmas pageant, and he has a vision of the day he will die. He believes that since a woman died at his hands, his hands and his life now belong to God. John forgives Owen for his role in Tabitha’s death, and they stay close friends. They talk about everything together, from John’s desire to find his biological father to their mutual feelings for John’s provocative cousin Hester Eastman. Hester has two wild older brothers, Noah and Simon, whom her parents lavish with attention. Just because they’re boys, they get to study at boarding schools and private universities across the country, while she has to stay at home and attend public schools. Outraged at her family’s sexism, Hester sets out to live her life in the most un-ladylike way possible. John and Owen find her equally sexy and terrifying.
John and Owen attend Gravesend Academy for high school, where Owen becomes notorious for his editorials in the school newspaper, writing as The Voice. He writes in ALL CAPS, just like his speech appears in the book. Owen impresses his peers with his sarcasm and his relationship with Hester, an older girl. The school’s authoritarian new headmaster, Randy White, is out to get Owen, but Owen refuses to be silenced. He boldly believes in treating rude behavior rudely in return, and is ultimately expelled. After his expulsion, he uses his skills from mining and carving granite to uproot a statue from the local Catholic school, remove its arms and head, and weld the rest of the statue to the stage at Gravesend Academy. That night, Owen dreams of how he will die: heroically saving children in Vietnam from an explosion. He knows he must join the army, learn Vietnamese, and perfect a slam-dunk jump with John.
Following his dream, Owen enlists in ROTC at the University of New Hampshire, where John also attends. While they’re in college, the Vietnam War begins to escalate. Both John and Owen are against the war, but Owen still wants to go to Vietnam and fulfill his destiny, while John wants to avoid the draft at all costs. Ironically, Owen is deemed too small to fight on a battlefield, while John is the perfect draft candidate. To protect John from going to war and from being with Owen on the day of his prophesized death, Owen slices off John’s trigger finger.
John earns his master’s degree in English while Owen escorts the bodies of soldiers killed in Vietnam home for burial. One day over the summer, he calls John and invites him to come to Arizona for a few days of vacation while he completes an extended assignment. John flies to Phoenix and accompanies Owen as he puts the body of Frank Jarvits to rest. They meet Frank’s deeply disturbed teenage brother, Dick Jarvits, a psychopath who can’t wait to go to war and start slaughtering the Vietnamese. During this trip, Owen is confused when the date of his death arrives and he is still in America—after all, his vision shows him saving Vietnamese children from an explosion. That day, he goes with John to the Phoenix airport to wish him goodbye. At the airport, a plane full of Vietnamese orphans lands, bringing the children to America to be adopted. Dick Jarvits, loitering around the airport, murderously draws a grenade on the children. Owen saves them by telling them in Vietnamese to lie on the ground, while he leaps high off the ground with John’s help and stuffs the grenade onto a cement windowsill, sacrificing himself to shield the children from the explosion. He dies surrounded by John and the nuns who were accompanying the orphans on the plane.
After Owen’s death, John returns to Gravesend. Owen’s father tells him that Owen’s mother conceived him as a virgin, like Mary and Jesus. No one ever believed them, which is why they left the Catholic Church. John thinks that the Meanys are either horribly ignorant or mentally impaired to tell Owen, in all seriousness, that he was born divine. John goes to talk to Rev. Merrill about the Meanys, and Merrill is compelled by Owen’s spirit to confess that he is John’s father. He had an affair with John’s mother after she secretly became a singer for a supper club in Boston.
John goes to Canada on Owen’s advice. He joins the Anglican Church and becomes an English teacher for an all-girls boarding school in Toronto, but he never feels Canadian—he remains too obsessed with America, criticizing its dishonest government and careless citizens. He refuses to move back to America, however. His powerful grief over Owen’s traumatic death leaves him stuck in the past, unable to forgive his country or start a new life. Meanwhile, Hester becomes a world-famous rock star by singing about the war, but John can only wait and pray for God to bring Owen back.