If you are a Stephen King fan you’ve probably already read his latest best-seller, “11-23-63, A Novel.” If you have passed on it because you associate his novels with scary horror stuff, you might want to take another look.
I hadn’t read a King book for years, but the premise of this one peaked my interest, and then held it for 800-plus pages. Or in my case, 30 hours on Audible.com. I devoured it in record time as it appears most of the people who reviewed it for Amazon also did. Within months after it hit the bookshelves in November 2011, some 1,700 reviews had been posted and that’s probably a very small fraction of actual readers. A common comment from people I know who have read it is, “I couldn’t put it down.”
The premise that lured me was WHAT IF? What if Oswald had not shot President Kennedy on that fateful Dallas day in November ’63? How would the history of our country be different? Would our country be better or worse today? And to take the WHAT IF one step further, what if someone had killed Oswald (assuming the lone-gunman theory) before he killed Kennedy?
King, in his unique creativity, thinks of one way to eliminate Oswald and alter history. Send someone back to the late ’50s and early ’60s through time travel with the sole mission of killing Oswald before 11-22-63. That someone is a very likeable hero, Jake Epping, a high school English teacher in present day (2011) Maine.
As with any time travel novel, there must be a “willing suspension of disbelief” on the reader’s part. Samuel Taylor Coleridge coined this term in 1817 as the temporary acceptance as believable of events or characters that would ordinarily be seen as incredible. This is usually to allow an audience to appreciate works of literature or drama that are exploring unusual ideas.
It’s hard to decide what to rave about first — the creativity of the story itself, the interesting characters Jake meets on his journey through time, or that ever-fascinating writing style of a master storyteller that keeps us riveted. Then there are the bigger issues confronting Jake, and ultimately the reader: If we could alter history, do we have the moral right to do so?
The story begins in Maine 2011. Jake is a divorced high school English teacher and the perfect time travel candidate. It’s summer break, he lives alone, he wouldn’t be missed. So when his dying friend Al, owner of the greasy spoon diner where the rabbit hole to the past exists, pleads with him to make this noble journey, he can hardly refuse his fabulous pitch. “Stop Lee Harvey Oswald, save Kennedy, save his brother, save Martin Luther King. Stop the race riots, stop Vietnam, maybe get rid of one wretched waif, buddy, and you could save millions of lives.”
Jake takes the plunge and is transported to the Maine of 1958 where he begins his journey to Texas and his search for Oswald. He has five years until the fateful 11-22-63. And Jake, being the good person he is, needs to be sure Oswald acted alone before he can kill him. And then still muster the courage to do it. His investigation is a good part of the adventure. Told in first person narrative, we sympathize and struggle with Jake. We also enjoy his reactions to life in, as he calls it, “The Land of Ago.”
An even greater adventure he had not planned on was falling in love with Sadie, a high school librarian in his new hometown of Jodie, Texas. Jake and Sadie’s love story is tender and beautiful but raises the stakes for Jake. If he completes his mission and returns to 2011, must he leave Sadie behind? I find it ironic that although Jake goes back in time, one of the most poignant messages in the story is his statement, “When time is gone, you can never get it back.”
If you lived in the ’50s you’ll enjoy all the authentic references to things familiar, with specific details such as 10-cent root beers with foam, rotary dial phones and party lines, Elvis on the Jukebox, couples dancing cheek to cheek, Studebakers, fin-tailed Chevrolets, Aqua Velva, and dancing the Lindy Hop with Sadie. King’s skillful combination of romance and history make for a great don’t-want-to-put-down story. The tension builds as the deadline nears and while the ending was totally unpredictable, it was very satisfying to me.
One of the bonuses of this book is a lengthy post-script by King detailing his extensive research with many sources available to read if you have further interest. He also gives his take on why, to this day, some 49 years later, after all the years of investigation, the two questions remain unanswered: Did Oswald pull the trigger and did he act alone?
King gives an explanation of Jack Ruby’s motivation whose sympathies were mainly with Mrs. Kennedy, who he admired greatly. If Oswald were dead she would be spared the agony of Oswald’s trial in Dallas where Ruby thought she might be called to witness. King also explains why Ruby’s presence in the police station was not questioned. And he suggests how a stripper named Miss Carlin (who worked in Ruby’s nightclub) possibly changed the course of history because she was $25 short on her December rent.
King also credits one of his favorite (and mine) time travel novels, “Time and Again,” by Jack Finney, which takes place in New York City at the turn of the century, as an inspiration. Another fascinating read I highly recommend.
Looking back (pardon the pun), time travel literature has appealed to many readers through the years and you probably have your favorites. I recall “A Wrinkle in Time,” by Madeline L’Engle, who won the Newberry award in 1962 when Meg Murray’s father disappears through a “tesseract.” Diana Gabaldon fans have adored the love story of Jamie and Claire in the Outlander series (eight volumes worth I believe).
Whatever your favorite, isn’t it wonderful how through good and imaginative literature we can re-live an era or experience one we never lived in but wish we had. I wish you happy reading, time and time again.
Former bookstore owner Vy Armour has been a resident of Ahwatukee Foothills for more than 20 years. She is an adjunct instructor in communications at the University of Phoenix and reviews books on her blog, http://serendipity-reflections.blogspot.com. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.