A Prayer for Owen Meany is a book that many students are assigned to read as part of the course work for their high school English class. It is also a book that tends to get banned.
Owen Meany is a small kid with a voice that is so bizarre that people stop and stare at him when he speaks. It sounds like a permanent scream. Owen is also brilliant, and wise beyond his years, and, like most kids who are a combination of highly intelligent and odd, he gets picked on all through childhood.
It takes until high school for Owen to become not only accepted, but popular, and in some ways, even revered. Which seems fitting, considering the fact that Owen believes he is “an instrument of God”. Why does he think so? Turns out Owen has some rather compelling reasons for his belief, which the reader slowly learns about as you go through the story.
Told from the viewpoint of Owen’s best friend, John Wheelwright, the book jumps around in time. One minute you are hearing about something that happened when the boys were young, the next minute John is telling the reader about today’s headlines in the newspaper, decades after the childhood story he just conveyed.
In the beginning of the book, John tells a story about the day of the baseball game when Owen hit the ball for the first time. The ball flew over the fence, and hit John’s mother on the head, instantly killing her. Despite this, the two remain best friends, and stay closer than brothers for their entire lives.
In addition to being a story about the great and wondrous Owen Meany, a boy like no other, this book is also a commentary about much deeper concepts. John and Owen were draft age right as the Vietnam War was getting going, and this book covers everything from specific historical events to how different people at that time viewed the war.
John’s cousin Hester becomes a protester. Owen tries to join the military. John doesn’t know what to do. Contrasting with this is the voice of “present day” John, who reads the New York Times newspapers every day, which tell him what is going on with the Iran/Contra Scandal that happened in the 1980’s. John doesn’t hold back on telling the reader exactly what he thinks about the United States Government as it relates to each event.
Much of this book involves religion. Different sects of Christianity are compared and contrasted viewed through the lens of John and Owen’s experiences at the different churches their families send them to.
Towards the beginning of this book is a description of not only a Christmas Pageant/Nativity Scene the boys become a part of, but also a lot about the town play, A Christmas Carol that John’s stepfather is directing. For me, personally, it was almost too much Christmas to sift through. Don’t skip over those scenes though, even if you also find your self going into Christmas overload, because what happens in those parts becomes very important later on in the book.
Owen despises Catholicism, for reasons you find out later on, but, despite that, is deeply religious from a very early age. John takes a bit longer to become religiously inclined. In any case, Irving includes a lot of stuff about the pros and cons of different religions in this book.
Considering that this book covers topics such as war, religion, and government (and also touches on some aspects of sexuality) and that it jumps back and forth in time, this is not an easy read! It is well worth the struggle to get far enough along to begin to enjoy the book.
Much of it is hysterically funny, especially some of the results of Owen’s plans and schemes. There are also parts of this book that literally took my breath away, the event was so unexpected and shocking. Few books have that effect on me.
Why does this book get banned? Any book that dares to criticize either Christianity or the United States government tends to irk people. This book does both. Some parts of this book are about John discovering his own sexuality, and people tend to get uncomfortable reading about an underage person having sexual feelings and the accompanying bodily reactions to those feelings.
John is attracted to his cousin Hester when both are still children, and the attraction doesn’t really go away for John after he becomes an adult. Although nothing really happens between the two of them, the concept alone is enough to make people object to having their kid assigned to read this book at school. This is not the only instance of sexuality appearing in this book, which only adds fuel to the fire, so to speak, for people who enjoy censorship.
In today’s world, there are fewer and fewer opportunities for Americans to read something that might make them question the actions of the United States government. Although the events in this book take place decades before America’s involvement in Iraq, the similarities between how people view this war, and how people viewed Vietnam are obvious.
I believe that people should question everything, and really think about it before just becoming a lemming and following blindly along, and that includes the actions of the government. It’s not important that you come to the same conclusions about war that John did, only that you hear a viewpoint that might not be the same as your own.
Irving shines a bright light on not only “Religion”, in a variety of forms, but also the people who follow it, and the actions they choose. The good, the bad, and the ugly are there for you to view, and think about. It’s not easy to find books that encourage the readers to use their brains and come to their own conclusions about topics as evocative as religion and war.