“…any good book is always in motion…”
20 Bookers braved a blustery north wind, cloudy skies, and temperatures in the low 30’s to the home of Katherine McDonald for this month’s meeting. When we selected November for our discussion of A Prayer for Owen Meany it was unlikely it would be colder in our neck of the woods than in New Hampshire, the setting of the novel. We were wrong. We observed a moment of silence for the destruction of property and lives lost in the California fires and for the shooting victims and their families in an all too familiar scene played out across our country.
Our list of “injured reserve” seems to grow with the passing of each day and we are sending our healing thoughts on a bullet train to Melba Holt, Lee McFarlane, and Sheri Green. It was wonderful that Ann Ireland felt well enough to be here today, Melanie Prebis’ arm is improving, and Tanya Holstead shared some positive news on her Dad…welcome reports all around.
The majority of the group read and finished this month’s selection. In terms of loves/likes/dislikes/and ughs…we were a divided group, and although it was not everyone’s cup of tea, (and what book is…maybe Cinderella?), the general consensus was there were laugh-out-loud funny moments; political tirades; promiscuous behavior; sexual content a little beyond innuendo; and an exploration of faith…all the while throwing a few conventional religions under the bus. Many thanks to Melanie for her insights into this complex novel. If we had even touched on every aspect of this book, most would have missed bridge, canasta, not to mention the cocktail hour and dinner.
Writers are both devotees and prisoners of their childhoods and often write to explain their lives to themselves. John Irving typifies that statement. His mother was not married when he was born, and she never told him who his father was. In his 1978 novel, The World According to Garp, he narrates a story of a man born out of wedlock to a feminist nurse, Garp growing up to be a writer. In his 1985 novel, The Cider House Rules, the protagonist grows up in an orphanage, never knowing who his biological father was. John Irving is often referred to as the modern Charles Dickens with his use of humor, tragedy, humanity, and a great deal of the absurd in his characters and situations. This novel was no exception with the stuttering Revered Lewis Merrill who doubted his faith and was identified as John’s biological father; Owen Meany, “the second virgin birth,” tiny and rodent-like with a wretched voice who spoke in all caps, knew he was the instrument of God, and accidently killed his best friend’s mother; John Wheelwright, the narrator, the result of his mother’s “little fling,” Owen’s best friend, and still a virgin at 45; Dan Needham, the good guy; Tabby, a babe, John’s mother, but lead two lives, one as a homebody, the other a nightclub singer; Hester (the Molester)…no need to explain further; Harriet Wheelwright, old-school, old money, WASP who could trace her roots to the Mayflower, and loved Liberace. Mr. Irving….bow to Mr. Dickens.
In the epigraph of “Meany” there is a question from Frederick Buechner (who is a writer of fifty books in a variety of genres, a theologian, and an ordained Presbyterian minister) he asks, “how could God reveal himself in a way that would leave no room for doubt? If there were no room for doubt, there would be no room for me.” How could not the entire novel not be an exploration of doubt with this quote in the beginning?
The first sentence of the novel contains “the whole novel.” “I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice – not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God.” Irving never writes the first sentence until he knows all the important things that happen in the story, especially the ending. “The idea that Owen Meany is God’s instrument or that he believes he is and so does the narrator, is specifically connected not only to his diminutive size but to the illusion of his weightlessness.” In the beginning the children lift Owen over their heads in Sunday school and at the end his weightlessness is interpreted that he was always in God’s hands.”
A Prayer for Owen Meany, published in 1989, is a classic by one of America’s most prolific novelists and screenwriters relating a story of friendship between the first-person narrator (coincidentally or not named John) Wheelwright and the diminutive Owen Meany. The story is told from a present-day Wheelwright looking back on his New Hampshire childhood and youth from his self-imposed Canadian exile. Structurally, the narration skips from memory to memory and scene to scene concurrently with important events in America history. The book starts with a bang as Owen Meany, a member of a baseball team who is never allowed to bat because pitchers cannot find the strike zone because he is so small, is given the green light to swing away. His efforts result in an errant foul ball killing his best friend’s mother.
Irving learned the art of turning names into themes from Charles Dickens whose cruel schoolmaster in Hard Times is named Mr. M’Choakumchild. The town named Gravesend could be interpreted as Grave’s End (resurrection and rebirth) or Grave Send (death & fate). Meany denotes Owen’s commonness and littleness. Tabby, a cat’s name, is often described as cat-like. Sawyer Depot refers to the rustic wildness of Tom Sawyer and the outpost quality of a train station – also is the home of John’s unruly cousins.
A strong theme of the book is religious faith and the struggle to find it and maintain it through tough circumstances. The novel explores how doubt and faith working in tandem are sentinels of our devoutness to a power greater than our own. John Irving made a generation relive the Vietnam war concentrating on the emotional and physical devastation on both sides of the world with Owen stating, “the only way you can get Americans to notice anything is to tax them, draft them, or kill them.” The symbolism of armlessness and amputation represents helplessness of people against the injustice of fate and the pain caused by that injustice; the loss of relations or possessions; and most telling, the surrender of the individual to God – in a sense using one’s arms as his instruments – as when Owen swings the fatal bat. Irving leaves it up to the reader to decide about fate and free will and explores how it is possible for friends to survive a friendship when one friend kills the other friend’s mother – John and Owen did because each one needed something from the other – a real test of friendship.
So much for our rule to avoid books about politics or religion. For argument’s sake, let’s say this one was a character study in the spiritual condition of humankind and a look at the dynamics of a divided nation embroiled in an unpopular war.
On the business side:
Bookers selection committee has added two more books to round out our year as indicated below and are considering our summer read. Stay tuned.
Bonnie again has volunteered to coordinate our fare for our annual party in December. She will be sending out a list of suggestions and ask that you respond directly to her.
Jane Shaw, who volunteered to host April, will be experiencing construction issues so we will need to find another host home. Please let me know if you can help.
Sandy Molander is again coordinating CASA Christmas, and if you haven’t already notified her and want to participate in making the holidays bright for these children, please contact Sandy directly.
For all of the fans of Elizabeth Strout of Olive Kitteridge fame, (you know how I feel) she will be releasing, Olive, Again September 3, 2019. Her comment, “Guess Olive wasn’t through with me or I with her.”
COLOR CODING SYSTEM
WHITE: LIGHT READ
PINK: MODERATELY CHALLENGING
December 11: Mr. Dickens and His Carol by Samantha Silva
Bookers annual holiday party coordinated by Bonnie Magee.
Charming and poignant about the creation of the most famous Christmas tale ever written.
Discussion Leader: Rebecca Brisendine
Home of Bonnie Magee
Jan. 8, 2019: The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah
Set in Alaska in 1974. The ultimate test of survival for a family in crisis.
Discussion Leader: Patty Evans
Home of Daryl Daniels
February 12: The Cottingley Secret by Hazel Gaynor
Set in 1917 England and based on a true story, two young cousins somehow convince the world that the magic exists.
Discussion Leader: Daryl Daniels
Home of Beverly Dossett
March 12: Stormy Weather by Paulette Jiles
Set in East Texas during the depression, a story of hardship, sacrifice, and strength.
Discussion Leader: Ann Ireland
Home of Mary Wensel
April 9: Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen, Sarah Bird
A forgotten part of history detailing the hidden story of Cathy Williams, a former slave and the only woman to ever serve with the legendary Buffalo Soldiers.
Discussion Leader: TBD
Home of Aulsine DeLoach
May 14: Where the Crawdads Sing, Delia Owens
Set in the 1950’s in very rural North Carolina revolving around a young woman named Kya Clark – celebrating strength through tragedy and the resourcefulness of a child left to fend for herself in the swamp.
Discussion Leader: Pam Davis (with a little arm twisting)
Evening Wine & Cheese Meeting @ home of Jean Alexander
Summer Read: Book TBD
“Faith can be based on many things, ignorance among them being the worst.”