A Prayer for Owen Meany
by John Irving
Where It All Goes Down
Gravesend, New Hampshire, 1952-1968; Toronto, Canada, 1987
A Prayer for Owen Meany takes place in two distinct periods of John Wheelwright's life. These two periods are interwoven together, meaning that we constantly move back and forth in time. The first setting is the town of Gravesend, New Hampshire. Most of the scenes of John and Owen's childhood and adolescent years take place there. Gravesend is a fictional town that is based on the real town of Exeter, New Hampshire. Likewise, Gravesend Academy, the prep school that John and Owen attend, is based on the prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire. In a lot of ways, Gravesend seems like kind of an ideal town to grow up in; the community seems fairly tight-knit (we mean, when was the last time your whole town got together to put on a production of A Christmas Carol?), it's not too far from the beach, and kids ride bikes and play baseball and engage in good old-fashioned shenanigans.
Still, Gravesend isn't entirely perfect; we get the vibe that there's some classism going on behind the scenes. We have fancy, Mayflower-stock Yankees like Harriet Wheelwright, who care all about pedigree, class, and Harvard degrees. Then we have working-class folk like the Meanys. The tension between the "haves" and "have-nots" in Gravesend becomes particularly easy to spot when we look at the scenes in which Tabby tries to convince Owen to apply to Gravesend Academy. Owen identifies with the public school; he figures that it's the right place for people "like him." Even if he gets a scholarship, he argues, he won't fit in because he doesn't have the look (he doesn't have the fancy clothes). Even though Owen ends up attending the Academy, we're still left thinking about what happens to kids who aren't as lucky or smart as Owen.
It's also worth mentioning that John and Owen grow up during a period of immense cultural change and political turmoil. The world around them becomes far less idealistic and a whole lot meaner as they grow to be young men. In the 1950s, everything seems to be all peachy and innocent. Then the 1960s come, and things start to shift radically. Marilyn Monroe dies. President Kennedy is assassinated. Bobby Kennedy is assassinated. Martin Luther King, Jr. is assassinated. The war in Vietnam escalates dramatically. Their friends and peers get drafted into the army; some, like Harry Hoyt, die in Vietnam (though, it is worth mentioning, he dies from a snakebite and not from combat). Others, like Buzzy Thurston, become addicted to drugs and alcohol. In a way, the world that the boys knew so well becomes unrecognizable.
These changes bring us to the other major setting that we encounter in the novel: Toronto, Canada in 1987. John moved there in 1967. We initially get the hunch that, like many other young men of the Vietnam era, John moved there to escape the draft. We quickly learn that this isn't so – actually, John evaded the draft by letting Owen chop off his trigger finger. He didn't have to move to Canada – so why is he there now? Well, we find out throughout the novel that John is pretty disgusted with American politics. He is extremely critical of the current administration (FYI – Ronald Reagan was the president then). He feels like American politicians mishandle practically everything in their wake. While we see John seethe with anti-Americanism throughout the whole novel, though, it isn't until the end that we realize it was actually one of Owen's last wishes that John should high-tail it out of the US and go to the land of maple leaves.