November 2011, Time Travel Fiction (1960s and present)
Scribner, $35.00, 849 pages, Amazon ASIN 1451627289
Before I picked up 11/22/63, I hadnít read a book by Stephen King in over twenty years. (I read The Tommyknockers in college, and letís just say it put me off.) A chance comment by someone who I donít even know well who ďheard it was goodĒ and a free Klout perk copy led me to give it a chance. And what do you know? I loved it. Aliens fueled by batteries may not be for me, but when it comes to time travel and alternative history, you can count me in. I could hardly put this book down.
You might think from the title and the cover that this book is about the Kennedy assassination. It is, and it isnít. Itís about time travel and all the big ďwhat ifs,Ē but itís also about a Maine English teacher who travels back in time and falls in love in small town Texas. That wasnít at all what I was expecting, but it was a lovely surprise.
The story begins when Jake Epping gets a call from Al Templeton, a restaurateur who is really only an acquaintance. He goes to meet him and discovers Al looking much older and sicker than when he saw him last - only days ago. Al tells him an incredible story:His dinerís storage room is a portal to a particular day in 1958. Al has been using the portal to buy cheap hamburger, which is why he charges such low prices. But Al has a new vision; he wants to change the course of history. 1958 is close enough to 1963 that Al figured he could save Kennedy - a course he believes will eliminate thousands of deaths in Vietnam and in race riots. Al attempted to do this, but got lung cancer and had to return to 2011. Naturally Jake doesnít believe this right away. But Al sends him on a little field trip to 1958. Jake visits a local grocer, buys a very tasty 1958 rootbeer, and converses with some locals. When Jake returns, Al explains the rules as he knows them. First of all, no matter how long you stay in the past, each trip takes exactly two minutes in the present (which is why Al looks so much older and sicker so quickly). Secondly, each trip is a reset: Al Saved a girl from being paralyzed in a hunting accident, but since Jake went through the portal again, the girl has now been re-paralyzed. Finally, the past is obdurate; it will work against change.
Al is too sick to complete his goal of saving JFK, so he of course wants Jake to do it. Though he doesnít know Jake well, he figures heís a good candidate because heís relatively young, and has no wife or children. He can spend five years or so in the past, fix everything, and no one will be any the wiser. Jake doesnít know what to think of the idea, but he does know a way to test things out. The janitor at the high school where he teaches was in a harrowing incident on Halloween of 1958 (only a little more than a month from the day the portal opens). The janitorís mother and siblings were killed by his crazy, drunk father, and the janitor barely escaped with his life. Jake figures heíll go back and save the family, and find out what happens when you save the lives of people who die in the past.
Al sets Jake up with a fake identity (George Amberson), plenty of 1958 money, a notebook he has on Lee Harvey Oswald - so Jake can start studying up, and a sports almanac just in case he needs some more cash. Jake manages to do what he set out to do - more or less - but comes back to find Al barely alive. Before Jake can really make a decision about saving Kennedy, Al forces the issue by killing himself. Knowing that Alís diner will shortly be sold, Jake has to act immediately. He goes back to 1958, determined this time to remain until 1963 and save JFK. Since every tripís a reset, he has to save the janitorís family (again), as well as the paralyzed girl. Since he really doesnít like 1958 Maine much, he heads to Florida, then eventually settles in Texas. While he bides his time waiting for Oswald to arrive back in the United States (he is still in Russia at this point). Jake (under his George Amberson name) gets a fake college diploma - he wonít earn his real one for years, after all - and starts teaching, first as a substitute in Florida and then full time in the small town of Jodie. Jodie is conveniently located near Dallas and Fort Worth - both places Oswald will live with his family before assassinating the president.
Jake intends to mostly bide his time and keep tabs on Oswald (once he arrives), but his life becomes much more than that. He becomes part of the community of Jodie - he encourages students, mourns when a beloved faculty member dies, and speerheads an effort to help an injured teenager. Most importantly, he falls in love. Sadie is the school librarian, who has a few secrets of her own. She is hiding from an abusive almost-ex husband, whom she intends to divorce in Reno when the school year is over. She opens up to Jake/George, but she senses that he is hiding things from her.
Jake will of course have decisions to make. He needs to determine absolutely whether Oswald was acting alone. He needs to decide how and where he will change history, and whether heíll tell Sadie who he really is. and as he becomes more enmeshed in the past, he needs to determine whether heíll simply stay there.
This is a long book that attempts a lot, covers a lot of ground, and is not afraid to take its time about it. Itís 849 pages long, a book you can sink your teeth into. A good part of it is spent in Maine, dealing with the janitorís family - which is basically an offshoot of the primary plot (as an aside, if youíve read It - and I did, in high school - youíll recognize a few of the characters). And though every moment isnít perfect, most of them are. I found myself riveted, wanting to know what would happen in Jakeís personal life (a plotline I enjoyed even more than the broader historical one), and wanting to know whether heíd save Kennedy.
11/22/63 really appeals on several levels. Jake personal story is the most obvious, and in many ways was my favorite aspect of the book. I loved Jake and Sadie, as well as the faculty members who are their friends. Jake learns as much from his relationships as he learns from his participation in broader events. Changing the past has implications beyond the historical ones; there are personal consequences as well.
On a deeper level, the theory of it all fascinated me. I mostly use my history degree to correctly answer trivia questions at my favorite coffee shop (that degree is paying for itself ten cents at a time), but I do have one. My first thought, fueled by years of Star Trek episodes, was that you canít change one thing without unintended consequences. Sure Johnson got us deeper into Vietnam, but he also had the legislative skills to ram civil rights legislation through congress. Iíve seen it on a personal level as well. My dad died when I was fifteen (in a way that, theoretically, could be prevented through time travel). Nothing about my life - good or bad - would be the same if my dad hadnít died. Iíd never have moved from New Jersey to California. Never have met my husband. And just like that my four children donít exist. It can freak you out if you think too much about it. King deals with those aspects as well. If you like to get into the theory of time travel as I obviously do, youíll find that here.
The only thing that didnít work as well for me was the somewhat sizable portion of the book that concentrates on Oswald. For a time, Jake leaves Jodie, separates from Sadie, and follows Oswald closely. There was just a little too much of that for me. Otherwise, I found the whole 849 tome riveting.
One caveat for romance readers: This book has many a sweet moment and plenty of romance, but itís not a romance. You know, a romance with an HEA. So while I would urge fans of time travel, historical fiction, and literature in general to give it a try, Iíd hate for anyone to expect a denouement full of sunshine and rainbows. Otherwise, this is a wonderful, thoughtful book thatís well worth the price of admission. Iím so glad I gave it a chance.
-- Blythe Barnhill
Order this book from Amazon Books
To comment about any of these reviews on our reviews forum