I’ve just had an experience that I can recommend to you . I was in the middle of reading a fine novel when I realised that its local setting meant that I could stroll through its pages. I’ve just done so today…a fine brisk day, good for a walk in the fresh air… and I found that the walk enriched my reading, when I returned home to finish the book.
The book in question is A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY by John Irving…..or, as Owen himself would put it, “BY JOHN IRVING”. Of course I’ve read, and enjoyed, other books by John. But as you know, we all have gaps in our reading. Somehow I had never read this book, although it was on our shelves. It was time to change that. So I opened this book from 1989 ( aha! I was only one year into my new role as Publisher at M&S, so I had other things on my mind!) with the keenest interest.
As I settled into this very unusual novel, I learned a lot about its setting in New Hampshire. Small-town Gravesend in northern New Hampshire is described in great detail, almost snowflake by snowflake, house by house, shingle by shingle. As the group of kids around our narrator and his friend Owen ages, we go from scene by scene classroom activity (and literally scene by scene Nativity plays) to summer jobs that involve work in the woods, or in the local granite quarries, or to Hester the Molester waitressing in local dining spots where lobster is a specialty.
Then , to our surprise, Canada comes into the picture.
The book’s narrator, John Wheelwright, is notable for two things. First, his protective love of his tiny friend Owen Meany, an astonishing character with a larger than life voice, personality, and brain. Second, his political conscience. John is a member of the generation scarred by the Vietnam War. So scarred that although an amputated finger leaves him unfit for the U.S. draft, after he leaves university he feels obliged to leave his country in disgust, and move to Canada.
To Toronto. As the lengthy plot moves forward, the main activity continues to centre on Owen and John and New Hampshire. But whenever we move to John’s present life, we roam around a specific part of Toronto. So that’s what I decided to do. I put down the unfinished book, and became an Owen Meany tourist.
I walked to Avenue Road and St. Clair, heading north to Upper Canada College. I looked with interest up the driveway, studying the buildings, remembering that John had compared them to the Gravesend private school where Owen and he spent their young lives. Then, impressed by the rich history on the plaque outside U.C.C., I walked west. After four blocks of elegant Forest Hill neighbourhood houses I came to Bishop Strachan School. It is, famously, the female equivalent of the boys-only U.C.C.. In the book it is the school where John Wheelwright becomes a teacher of English. His discussion of that role allows him to speak warmly of the writers he most admires, from Thomas Hardy to Robertson Davies and Alice Munro.
I did not enter the good, grey, Gothic walls of B.S.S., (“Hi, can I look at a classroom like the one that John Irving’s character would have taught in?” seemed an unpromising approach) but I did walk two blocks north to get a sense of the school. And I did recall that John Irving’s wife, the former Canadian Publisher, Janet Turnbull Irving, (now a notable tennis player) had attended B.S.S. as a literary teenager, so John did have inside knowledge of the place.
In the novel Owen , and his friend John, care deeply about God and the mysteries of religion. So it’s appropriate that in Toronto John Wheelwright falls in love with the gentle charms of the building due west of Bishop Strachan, the old Grace Church on the Hill. I slipped into the church and relaxed in a pew. gazing around me with slow pleasure. Very soon, I had come up with a rule for this new programme for literary walks: it should — perhaps must — include a spell spent sitting in a church, or other religious space. Doing nothing but looking around, and thinking.
A slow tour of the stained glass windows, and the monuments, revealed, yet again, how the First World War obliterated a whole generation of young Canadians. Twenty-year-olds who should have been sunning themselves in Toronto parks were chewed up by a war machine they could not even have imagined. I thought of what R.H.Thompson’s brilliant work to remember those millions of lost First World War lives had achieved, and how proud I had been to help him.
A final, personal look at the lives lost in that war from that little church. I always look for possible relatives. Yes, there was one Gibson, one Young and one Thomson.
A slow walk out of the Church led to Russell Hill Road, along which John Wheelwright would walk every day, to and from his classes. I trudged thoughtfully south to St. Clair, noticing the new houses that have been recently inserted, but enjoying the traditional homes that John Wheelwright would have passed. Then, with a turn at St. Clair, past the Timothy Eaton United Church, I walked east twenty minutes to reach home.
There a lively book awaited me, greatly enriched by my walking tour.
Try the idea!