As the countdown closes in on Halloween, today’s installment gives us Stephen King’s #3 best book, 11/22/63. Originally published in 2011, I’d avoided reading this book because I didn’t think I’d resonate with the subject matter, and might not have read it at all if I hadn’t been faced with limited reading options on a recent long flight. I was certainly unprepared for how captivating this book was—I literally had difficulty putting it down.
It is difficult to summarize such a complex 849 page book in a few sentences, but here goes: Jake Epping is a divorced, disillusioned high school teacher going through the motions in Lisbon Falls, Maine. His life is turned upside down when his friend, Al, reveals that he’s discovered a portal in the pantry of his diner that leads to the past. Doubting Al’s story at first, Jake travels through the portal and spends an hour in 1958. When he uses it to return to 2011, Al explains the basics of how the portal functions:
- Every journey through the portal transports you to September 9, 1958, at precisely 11:58 a.m
- No matter how long you stay in the past--hours, days, weeks, or years--only two minutes elapse in 2011
- Past events can be changed; however, subsequent use of the portal "resets" the timeline and nullifies all changes made on the previous excursion
Al's ambition had been to prevent Lee Harvey Oswald from assassinating John F. Kennedy, believing that doing so would prevent the Vietnam War and subsequent negative historical events like the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. To complete this mission, Al endeavored to live in the past from 1958 until 1963, but only made it to 1962 before developing terminal lung cancer. His dying wish is for Jake to carry out the mission on his behalf, and he provides Jake with a supply of 1958 cash he’s accumulated as well as documents to enable him to create the identify of “George Amberson” to help him fit in.
Thus begins Jake’s five year foray into the past. The main challenge to his mission is that the "obdurate" past doesn’t want to be changed, and throws up obstacles to prevent history from being altered. Even worse: this resistance is proportional to the magnitude of the historical change.
At first Jake has difficulty acclimating to the cultural differences of 1958, but he quickly comes to enjoy living in the past. He eventually settles in Jodie, Texas—a town a few hours south of Dallas—to await the events of 1963, and quickly settles into small town life. Fitting well into the community in the guise of “George Amberson,” Jake is hired to teach English at the local high school and becomes romantically involved with the school's new librarian, the lovely Sadie Dunhill, who came to Jodie to escape from her mentally disturbed husband.
Jake quickly falls in love with Sadie, but is torn between his duty to prevent the Kennedy assassination and his desire to abandon the mission and spend the rest of his life with her. But with the “obdurate” past working against him—sometimes with deadly consequences—to prevent him from changing history, Jake’s actions [and indeed, his very presence in the past] threaten to place her in harm’s way.
The result is a roller coaster of adventure and danger leading up to the Kennedy assassination attempt. And as Jake comes to discover, changing things in the past--no matter how small--creates unintended butterfly effects that can have disastrous impacts upon the future.
Another King book that can’t be classified as horror, 11/22/63 is instead a compelling sci fi / historical fiction read that delivers masterfully crafted detail about the activities of Lee Harvey Oswald leading up to the assassination attempt. But what will keep readers flipping the pages is the love story at the heart of the book between Jake and Sadie, and the disastrous consequences that stem from Jake’s obsession with changing the past.
The main issue with this book [as is the case with many lengthier King works] is that it contains some fat that could be trimmed to streamline the story [at this stage of his popularity, editors aren’t condensing his manuscripts with the same level of scrutiny as they might other authors]. But despite a few areas where the story bogs down, I’d highly recommend 11/22/63 to anyone looking for an engaging read with exceptional characters and an intricate plot.
In April 2013, it was reported that Warner Bros. Television and J. J. Abrams' Bad Robot Productions were in negotiations for the rights to adapt the novel as a TV series or miniseries.