Thursday, April 12, 2012

Time Traveling With Stephen King

What would you do if you could change horrible events that occurred in the past?  That’s the intriguing premise behind Stephen King’s excellent novel, 11/22/63. Jake Epping is a high school teacher in Lisbon Falls, Maine. He’s teaching a GED course, and one of his students, Harry Dunning, writes a heartbreaking essay about “the day that changed my life,” for a class assignment. Harry’s a learning impaired janitor who works at the high school. His essay talks about night his father killed his mother and siblings with a hammer and wounded Harry.  Jake is touched by the story, and befriends the man.

One night, Jake is having dinner at a local diner, when the owner, Al Templeton, shares a secret with him. Back in the diner’s pantry, there’s a portal that leads to 1958, and Al’s been traveling back in time. The portal always takes you to the same moment in 1958, and when you return to the present, only two minutes has passed. Al, who has cancer, had been planning to prevent the assassination of President John F. Kennedy by killing Lee Harvey Oswald. He’s even lived in the past for a while to gather information. But his illness is preventing him from completing the mission, and he wants Jake to do it for him. Al believes this is a pivotal moment in time, and stopping Oswald will fix a lot of things that are wrong with the world today.

Jake tries a sample trip to the past, and is amazed to find Al’s story is true. He goes on a test mission to prevent Harry’s father from killing the family, and partially succeeds. But there are consequences to his actions in the present. Still, he agrees to kill Oswald, but will have to live in 1958 under an assumed identity and await his arrival in Texas. We follow Jake as he takes a job as a teacher in a small town named Jodie, and begins a romance with a fellow faculty member. Meanwhile, the specter of Oswald, and the murder he will have to commit to change history, haunts Jake. And what if killing Oswald changes the present for the worse?

That’s the basic plotline of this well-paced, interesting and suspenseful novel. It features King’s usual well-drawn characters and realistic dialogue. It’s a bit of a change of pace for the author, though there are a few cameos from other characters from the King universe for fans. In his afterword, King cites the novel Time After Time by Jack Finney as one of his inspirations, and if you’re familiar with that classic time travel story, you’ll find much to enjoy in this book. King and his researcher, Russ Dorr, did exhaustive work looking at books, historical documents, newspaper archives and ads from the period, and King also met with historian Doris Kearns Goodwin to discuss the novel, and the implications on history if Kennedy had lived. The details all feel right, and make the story that much more believable.

This is an engrossing “What If?” story about one of the most tragic events of the 20th Century. King’s usual flair for telling a fast-paced, engrossing story with relatable characters is intact. The author has received some of the best reviews of his career for the novel, and The New York Times selected it as one of the top five fiction books of 2011. Even if you’re not a fan of King’s usual horror fare, 11/22/63 is worth reading. All the monsters here are real, and in some ways, that’s a lot scarier than Pennywise the Clown from It, or the vampires of ‘Salem’s Lot.  Highly recommended.

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