If you had the power to go back in time, to right a wrong, would you? What if righting the wrong involved cold-blooded murder? Would you, could you still correct history’s mistake? It would be easy to rationalize: the end justifies the mean, the murder has extenuating circumstances, saving many lives is worth the taking of one life. But then fate enters the equation. What if history is not meant to be fixed or repaired or patched? If the threads of time are fine and fragile, a single rip in the fabric could lead to a massive snarl in the future. How do you reconcile the death of innocent people, the lack of justice for wrong-doers with fate, destiny or preordained actions?
Plot Overview: History, Assassinations and Time Travel
In 2011 Jake Epping is a high school English teacher who takes on the extra responsibility of preparing adult students for the GED exam. One of his students, “Hoptoad” Harry, the school’s janitor who walks with a limp, writes a stunning (and error-filled) essay about the Halloween night his father took a hammer to his mother, his two brothers and his sister. Harry was the only survivor.
Jake gives Harry an A plus and treats his student to lunch at his friend, Al Templeton’s, diner. Days later, Al, whose health has rapidly deteriorated, confides in Jake that there is a set of invisible steps in his drying shed that lead to the year 1958. Jake is skeptical, but follows Al’s instructions, and finds himself in Lisbon Falls, Maine, on September 9, 1958. Stunned, Jake explores the world of the late ‘50s, its friendly, trusting citizens, delicious root beers and overwhelming cigarette smoke. When he returns to 2011, Al tells him that he must return to 1958 and live there until 1963 so he can stop the assassination of JFK. Jake puzzles over Al’s idea, but Al tells him that every trip is a reset, every trip only takes two minutes in present time.
Jake agrees to take a preliminary trip back in time, not to stop the assassination, but to stop Harry’s father from murdering the family. The problem is, when he returns to Al to get the instructions on JFK’s assassination, time resets, and Jake must try to stop Harry’s father a second time. Violence can beget violence, and murder can beget murder, but Jake is determined to do the right thing.
Once settled in 1958, Jake assumes the identity of George Amberson and sets out on a journey across time, history and the U.S. What he encounters – suspicion, danger, racism, poverty, domestic abuse – changes the man he was. When he meets Sadie Dunhill, George, as he is then, falls in love. Unfortunately, love may be the one thing that can stop him from completing his mission. So what does George choose? The future of the United States or the love of his life?
Criticisms and Compliments
Stephen King is regarded as the master of horror, the creator of all things that go bump in the night, but his more conventional stories (e.g. The Long Walk, The Green Mile, Misery) are the really fantastic reads. True to his English-teaching background, King’s storytelling style is simple and straightforward (nary an adverb to be found!), and the worlds he creates are complex and fascinating. 11/22/63, a massive piece of work at almost 900 pages, is one of his most gripping stories yet. Despite its heft, 11/22/63 clips along at a fast pace, and Jake Epping/George Amberson is a complicated protagonist who not only develops as a result of his time-traveling experiences, but he also learns the weight of consequences – even when he believes he’s doing the world a favor.
The rules with time travel, like with any science fiction world or fantasy creature, are flexible, and different writers have different interpretations. In Stephen King’s world, time travel involves wormholes to the past; each visit resets the past. But something – someone – is in charge of cleaning up the movements of the time travelers, of people like Jake/George and Al, because each trip leaves residue. The butterfly effect is always in play, though not in a way obvious to the people involved. Every choice, every decision leads to a different outcome, one that irrevocably shapes history. The past is firm and obdurate, as Jake/George observes, and everything, it seems, works out the way it’s supposed to. What an intriguing concept.
11/22/63 is a much lauded book, and for good reason. Read it as soon as possible – though carve out a good chunk of time.
- King, Stephen. 11/22/63. Gallery Books, 2012 ISBN 9781451627299