Study Guide

A Prayer for Owen Meany Chapter 1

By John Irving

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Chapter 1

The Foul Ball

  • The narrator begins by telling us he's "doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice" (1.1) He paints a picture of this boy – he's tiny, he had something to do with the narrator's mother's death, but most importantly, he's the reason why the narrator believes in God.
  • We learn that the narrator has lived in Canada for twenty years and has converted to Anglicanism. When he dies, he wants to be buried in New Hampshire near his mom.
  • The narrator starts talking about his childhood.
  • At Sunday school, the narrator and his classmates used to pick Owen Meany (the tiny, mom-killing, faith-giving guy) up off the ground and pass him around. Man, that Sunday school sounds like fun.
  • We learn more about Owen. His family is in the granite business, and he always seems to have granite dust all over him. His skin is the "color of a gravestone" (1.5) and so translucent that you can see his veins. The narrator reveals that Owen must have been born too soon.
  • The most astounding characteristic about Owen is his voice – the narrator tells us that there must be something wrong with his vocal chords, because "to be heard at all, Owen had to shout through his nose" (1.6).
  • Every time Mrs. Walker, the Sunday school teacher, would leave the room, the kids would start passing Owen around. Stuff would fall out of his pockets, like his beloved baseball cards. Whenever she came back, Owen would get in trouble. He would never tell on anyone else.
  • The narrator tells us that he himself was a Wheelwright, and that his family came over on the Mayflower.
  • The narrator describes his grandmother, Harriet, who is way proper and hoity-toity.
  • Then the narrator launches into a description of his hometown of Gravesend, New Hampshire. We learn the history of Gravesend. Then we learn that the narrator was named after the town's founder – they are both named John Wheelwright.
  • We learn that the original John Wheelwright acquired the land from a local sagamore (that is, a Native American chief) named Watahantowet. When Watahantowet signed the deeds, he drew his totem, which was an armless man.
  • Then John, our narrator, tells us more about his family. He talks about his mom. She kept the name Wheelwright because she had Johnny out of wedlock – we learn that he has never met his father, and he's OK with that.
  • We learn that Johnny was eleven when his mom died. She was 30. She never told him who his father was.
  • John remembers talking to Owen about his father's identity. Owen is convinced that God knows who Johnny's father is. He insists that God will reveal Johnny's father's identity to him – it's just a matter of time. (This is around the time when we first catch a glimpse of Owen's screechy speech, which is in ALL CAPITAL LETTERS. You'll get used to it quickly, so don't worry.)
  • We meet John's uncle Alfred Eastman, who is in the lumber business. Uncle Alfred is married to Aunt Martha, who is John's mother's sister.
  • The Meanys, as we've mentioned, are in the granite business. Owen knows tons about cornerstones and monuments.
  • We learn that Johnny was born at 80 Front Street, the Wheelwright family home. His mother never explained the full details of her pregnancy to anyone. All anyone knows is that she met a man on the Boston & Maine Railroad, and the rest is history.
  • We get a little more family history: back before Johnny was born, Aunt Martha went to college but Johnny's mom said that she didn't want to go. She argued that she should be home to help take care of her father, who was dying.
  • Rev. Lewis Merrill, the local pastor at the Congregational Church, told her parents that she had a beautiful voice and should get professional lessons. It would be just as good an investment as college for her.
  • Anyway, Johnny's mom started taking voice lessons in Boston. Her lessons were first thing in the morning, so she would go on the train the night before and spend the night. Apparently her teacher was a big shot and in such high demand that it was the only time she could get a lesson.
  • We learn a little more about Aunt Martha's relationship with Johnny's mom. Martha always resented her sister, because Johnny's mom was always the prettier of the two and always got the boys.
  • It goes without saying, then, that Martha really disapproved of Johnny's mom getting pregnant from a "fling." Still, Johnny's mom used the word fondly and would affectionately call Johnny "my little fling!" (1.60).
  • We also learn that Johnny's mom was the kind of lady that even the meanest person could warm up to – everyone loved her.
  • After Johnny was born, his mom continued to go to Boston every Wednesday night. He resented it. She only canceled her trip a couple of times – once when Johnny had the chicken pox, and another time when he broke his wrist.
  • We learn that Johnny's mom gets remarried when Johnny is ten, and that the man she marries legally adopts Johnny and becomes like a real father to him.
  • We learn more about 80 Front Street – it's a big, foreboding brick place that people always mistake for the Gravesend Inn. The coolest part of it is that there's a secret passageway, hidden by a bookcase that's actually a door.
  • We learn that Johnny once took Owen to the secret passageway and scared the you-know-what out of him. Owen screamed so chillingly that Grandma Wheelwright was totally terrified.
  • We meet Lydia, who is the housekeeper at 80 Front Street. We learn that Lydia eventually develops some kind of cancer and has to have her right leg amputated. Johnny's grandmother ended up hiring two more maids – one for herself, and one to look after Lydia – and Lydia never worked again, but continued to live at 80 Front Street.
  • We learn that John's grandmother eventually lost her memory, but she never forgot Owen's voice.
  • John recalls another major memory of Owen. They used to go swimming in the granite quarries (which we've never heard of doing, but apparently they're deep and full of water). They were only allowed to go in if they had a rope tied around their waists, and they were only allowed to go in one at a time.
  • Owen once untied the rope and swam underwater to the other end of the quarry and waited to see how everyone else would react. They were totally stunned and just stared at the end of the rope when they pulled it out of the water. Owen took this as a huge insult: "'YOU LET ME DROWN!' Owen said. 'YOU DIDN'T DO ANYTHING! YOU JUST WATCHED ME DROWN! I'M ALREADY DEAD!' he told us. 'REMEMBER THAT: YOU LET ME DIE" (1.98). This moment will come back later.
  • We learn that when Johnny's mother got married, they left the Congregational Church and joined the Episcopal Church.
  • Apparently, Owen changed over to the Episcopal Church at the same time – "TO ESCAPE THE CATHOLICS" who, he says, committed an "UNSPEAKABLE OUTRAGE" by insulting his parents (1.100).
  • Owen apparently wasn't huge on Catholicism because he felt like all the ceremonies and prayers and creeds kept him from talking to God directly. Owen believed that "A PERSON'S FAITH GOES AT ITS OWN PACE" (1.107).
  • We also learn that the town of Gravesend is home to Gravesend Academy, which is a swanky all-boy's school. Johnny's mom really wants Owen to go there – she's sure that he could get a full scholarship.
  • Owen totally refuses to go to Gravesend Academy – he says that the public school is meant for people like him.
  • We learn that Mrs. Meany is what people often refer to as a "shut-in" – she stays inside all day, wearing an old set of headphones to shut out the sound of the equipment from the granite quarry.
  • Mr. Meany, meanwhile, runs the household. He's pretty anti-Gravesend Academy because their crew team wanted to get the river widened to improve their racing course, a measure that would cut into his property.
  • One day, when the boys were ten, Owen tells Johnny that his mother had come to see the Meany's – he could tell because the smell of her perfume lingered in the air.
  • We also learn that Owen thinks that Johnny's mom has "THE BEST BREASTS OF ALL MOTHERS" (1.154).
  • John starts talking about the summer that he and Owen were eleven years old, which is the summer that Johnny's mother died.
  • So here we are, in the summer of 1953.
  • Johnny and Owen play little league. Owen is really incredibly bad at baseball. Their team is losing, and everyone is basically waiting to go home.
  • The coach, Mr. Chickering, tells Owen that he can bat for Johnny.
  • Johnny's mom arrives at the little league game. She walks by the stands near the left-field foul line, past third base, and looks to see if anyone she knows is there.
  • Meanwhile, Harry Hoyt walks, and Buzzy Thurston hits an out. If they get one more out, the game is over.
  • Usually, Mr. Chickering tells Owen to just stand there and not swing because it's really easy to make him walk rather than strike out. This time, Mr. Chickering feels like he has nothing to lose. Everyone is waiting for the game to end, so Mr. Chickering tells Owen to swing away.
  • Johnny's mom sees someone she knows and waves to whoever it is.
  • Meanwhile, Owen swings and actually hits the ball – the noise it makes is louder than any hit Johnny has ever heard before.
  • Johnny's mom turns around to see who was responsible for such a loud hit; as she turns, the ball hits her in the head and she falls down dead.
  • Mr. Chickering is the first person to reach her. She's lying there with her legs splayed open and her dress hiked up over her knees, so he rearranges her to look more proper. Then he throws his jacket over Johnny's head and tells Johnny that he (Johnny) doesn't want to see her.
  • Police Chief Pike searches for the baseball, because, as far as he's concerned, it's a murder weapon. It's nowhere to be found, though.
  • Owen goes up to Johnny, who still has the jacket thrown over his head, and tells him, "I'M SORRY!" (1.212).
  • When Johnny finally takes off that warm-up jacket, he realizes that Owen is nowhere to be found. He imagines Owen wobbling on his bike to go home.
  • Johnny wonders if Owen has the ball – it was the only decent hit he ever made, and it killed someone.
  • Johnny feels kind of angry with his mom for never telling him who his dad was.
  • John in the present day tells us that, in retrospect, he was only eleven and had no idea that there were other people at that game who had their own reasons for wanting that baseball…spooky.

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