I was 5 years old when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas Texas. I remember the day very well. I was annoyed that my usual fare of children’s television was not airing. Instead it was some boring news thing. I went into the kitchen to complain to my mother about it. She told me to play something since Superman and The Mickey Mouse show weren’t on.
Later that same day a lady from the nearby Air Force base housing area came and knocked on every house door in the neighbourhood, including ours. She said the same thing to everyone who answered their door, “The President’s been shot.”
Even at 5 years old, I could tell that this was bad. The grown-ups were crying and very upset. America changed on that day forever, as did the rest of the world. Stephen King’s book 11/22/63 looks at what could happen if someone was given a choice to change history or, to be even more basic, to change the past by travelling back to a time when things were easier and simpler.
Jake Epping finds out that his friend Al, the proprietor of Al’s Diner, has found a “doorway” into the past. A sunny September afternoon in 1958, 5 whole years before Jacqueline Kennedy is made a widow and her children orphans. Al shows Jake this doorway when he finds that he is dying of cancer and after his last trip, “down the rabbit hole” left him unable to save President Kennedy from dying at the hands of Lee Harvey Oswald.
Jake finds out that Al has been going through this doorway for years. Al also explains to Jake that no matter how long you stay in the past, when you return you’ve only been gone for 2 minutes. Al stayed for 4 years on his last trip in order to save JFK from getting killed. Unfortunately his heavy cigarette habit caught up with him before he could stop Oswald.
He makes Jake promise that he will try to save Kennedy from assassination. Jake goes back and changes one thing; he stops the school janitor’s father from murdering his mother and his siblings. He comes back to see what has changed for the janitor only to find that he died in Vietnam. Despite this minor setback, Jake decides to live up to his promise to Al and go back.
This is Stephen King at his finest. For years I have always declared that The Stand was his best book. Probably because it was the first one of his books that I read. But I now stand corrected. 11/22/63 is without a doubt his best book to date.
King has always had a talent for making his characters seem alive and breathing. His cinematic style of writing also make his stories just as alive as his characters. He still lets us into the minds of the people he writes about, which helps to make them seem more real.
In this book he manages to keep track of all the threads of the story (or strings, as it were) and tie them up in a bow at the end of the story. King is really the only writer who can consistently make me cry and laugh at his stories. His books also make me partake in one continuous “read-a-thon” where I cannot put the book down until I’ve finished it. Once I’ve finished it and read his afterword notes, I pick it up and read it again.
I think I got so swept away by the story because of the time period that is was set in. I was a small child in the 60’s and became a teenager in the 70’s. Apart from living in Sacramento California when I was 5, I grew up in the south. The picture he paints of the time, people and area is spot on.
When he writes of the small Texas town where Jake meets Sadie, I can “see” the teenagers with their flat tops and Ked sneakers and penny loafers (with a dime stuck in the front of the shoe) and I can taste the king size Cokes and smell the ever present cigarette, cigar and pipe smoke. As Jake points out, everyone smoked in the 50’s and 60’s. These were the last days of innocence in America. We’d won the war. John Wayne was still number one at the box office and America was the golden land of opportunity.
It was also the days of racial segregation, the KKK and “better dead than red.” There were towns in the south that did not allow black people to live within their hallowed city limits. A time when the Army and the police and the National Guard had to escort black students to a white school. It was also Ozzie and Harriet, Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best. Russia was the “big bad” that the world faced and nuclear weapons were what we dropped on Japan and Russia beat us into space and had atomic weapons.
I can still remember the signs of restaurants and cafes that said, “No Coloured’s” and of course the all-purpose catch-all, “We reserve the right to refuse service to anybody.” This would change in the 70’s when it was no longer deemed appropriate to be racially bigoted. The signs were replaced with the, “No shirt, No shoes, No service.” This prejudice against the long-haired, peace-loving, hippies was acceptable.
It is this backdrop that Jake has to inhabit. And we are there with him, every step of the way. But Jake is not alone, he feels like the past is actively fighting him every step of the way on his journey to save the US president from assassination.
He learns that the past doesn’t want to be changed.
If I used a star system for rating books I’ve read, 11/22/63 would get a 5 out of 5 stars. So okay the idea isn’t necessarily original, King himself writes about Jack Finney‘s Time and Again. But it is the way it is written that makes this a classic tale and one worth reading.
In my humble opinion, Stephen King is, as his name suggests, the crowned head of popular fiction. I don’t think that he is in any danger of losing his crown.
- 11/22/63 by Stephen King (moviesandmangoes.wordpress.com)
- Scootsa1000′s #CBR4 Reviews 50 & 51: Wolves of the Calla (Dark Tower 5) and Song of Susannah (Dark Tower 6) by Stephen King (cannonballread4.wordpress.com)
- The Great Stephen King Reread: Carrie (tor.com)
- ‘The Stand’: Ben Affleck on the Difficulties of Adapting Stephen King’s Book (screenrant.com)
- Up Next in the Stephen King Project: Desperation (thehorrificallyhorrifyinghorrorblog.com)