Reviewed by Galen Strickland
I'm not a big Stephen King fan, although I acknowledge he is a very good writer. The majority of his books and stories lie in the horror genre, my least favorite branch of speculative fiction. I have enjoyed several of his that are more science fiction, and a few that I would describe as supernatural suspense. Since time travel is regarded by many to be an impossibility, I guess you can say that 11/22/63 is a fantasy. Whatever you call it, it is a good book. Perhaps I should say it is two good books, but they fight against each other to limit either from being great. Nearly 900 pages in hardcover, quite a bit of that could have been trimmed to make the attempt at preventing JFK's assassination more gripping, or he could have concentrated on the side story and made it one of the best time travel love stories since Richard Matheson's Bid Time Return. By combining the two he made each of them more predictable and less compelling.
The method by which Jake Epping takes a trip back in time has a definite fantasy element. He doesn't use a machine or device, but rather a mysterious portal in a diner's storage room. You can't see the portal, and once you go through it you can't see the way back to the diner, you just have to stumble upon it and hope for the best. Jake's friend, Al Templeton, the owner and chief fry-cook of the diner, is the one who lets Jake in on the secret. Al has been taking trips back for several years, sometimes staying in the past for long periods of time, and yet when he returns only two minutes have transpired in current time. Also, every time he goes through the portal it is the same time when he arrives, 11:58am on September 9, 1958. Even when Al tells him that he knows for a fact that the past can be changed, Jake is skeptical and decides he needs to see that for himself before he embarks on the ultimate goal, saving Kennedy. Since he would have to stay in the past for over five years, as well as travel from Maine to Texas to accomplish that task, he needs to be sure his efforts would not be in vain.
Jake is an English teacher at Lisbon Falls High School. He also teaches a G.E.D. night class. One of his adult students, Harry Dunning, is a janitor at the school. Harry had suffered both physical and psychological injury as a child, when his father murdered his mother, sister and two brothers, as well as crippling him. Jake learns about this when Harry writes an essay for the class on "The Day That Changed My Life." When Jake realizes that incident occurred just a little over a month after the time he would be entering by going through the portal, he decides it cannot be a coincidence, that he was meant to prevent that incident from happening. If he is successful in that venture, he feels confident he can carry out the more formidable task of stopping Lee Harvey Oswald. Even when it takes two different trips to get the job done right, he has no choice but to carry through with his other plan. After all, who wouldn't save Kennedy if they had the chance?
But it doesn't take Jake long to learn that the past is obdurate, that it desperately wants to retain its shape and form, and will throw obstacles in the path of anyone attempting to change it. His original plan was to kill Oswald several weeks before November 22, 1963, but other events conspire against him, and it goes right down to the wire on the fateful day in the Texas School Book Depository. The major problem with the book is that it takes entirely too long to get to that point. Jake could have laid low until the appropriate time since he has plenty of "old" money for expenses, provided by Al Templeton. Al has also given him a notebook with meticulous details about where Oswald would be on any given date. But no, we have to live through five long years of Jake's experiences in Maine, then Florida, New Orleans, and then into Texas where he lives in two separate houses in close proximity to Oswald. During the same period he ends up in the small town of Jodie, south of Dallas, becomes a substitute teacher, meets and falls in love with soon-to-be divorced Sadie Dunhill. It didn't take me long to figure out that several characters from that town were going to figure into later events, and that's when I started losing interest in whether Jake was successful or not.
There were times when I was hoping Jake would abandon his Kennedy project and concentrate on making a quiet, comfortable life with Sadie. Their experiences of small town life, the closeness with other teachers and students, gives Jake reasons to stay there and forget about the future he came from. This is also balanced with his observances of things not right with that time, racism and sexism among other things, that prove there really is no such thing as the "good old days." He misses his cell phone and the internet, but other than that he is happy where he is, until he remembers why he is there at all. He decides it is best for everyone, himself, Sadie, and all his friends in Jodie, to give them the opportunity to experience what the New Frontier could have accomplished if it hadn't been cut down by an assassin's bullet.
Of course, even if you can change the past, even from such a tragic event as the assassination of a president, does that mean the results will be all good? Don't forget, the past is obdurate, and just because you change one thing it doesn't mean something worse won't happen. I'll stop now so I don't get too spoilery, but I venture a guess that the last third of the book will become apparent to anyone who gets that far. It's up to each individual reader to decide if the long journey is worth it. In spite of some of my comments, it was still worth it for me.
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