If you have avoided Stephen King novels because you don’t enjoy horror, then you should try his newest book, “11/22/63.” It’s history, it’s fantasy and it’s a terrific read.
Jake Epping is King’s protagonist, and he’s someone the reader will want to follow through all 849 pages. He is high school English teacher in Maine who also teaches GED classes. In one class he asks his adult students to write a personal essay on “The Day that Changed My Life.” One of the essays is a harrowing account from a school janitor, Harry Dunning, of the night that changed his life. It was on a Halloween night 50 years ago that Harry’s father, in a brutal drunken act, attacked his family and killed Harry’s mother and sister. Harry was left crippled.
Jake is a regular at Al’s Diner and celebrates Harry’s GED graduation there. A year or two later, Al Templeton, who owns and operates the diner, contacts Jake with a proposition. Al tells Jake that he has lung cancer from smoking for more than 50 years and doesn’t have long to live. Al also confides that in the diner’s pantry is a “rabbit hole” — a portal into the past to the year 1958. Al used the portal several times for different reasons. He used it to buy cheap hamburger meat at the 1958 price of 54 cents a pound and then sold hamburgers at his diner at prices that beat those of his competitors. He’s learned that each trip into the past, no matter how long he stays, takes just two minutes in present time. Also, Al notes that if you change something in the past and go back again, the past resets itself to historical accuracy.
Al wanted to prevent Lee Harvey Oswald from assassinating John F. Kennedy. He reasoned that Oswald was a lone shooter, so stopping him wouldn’t be so difficult, whereas preventing the events of 9/11 would be more difficult because so many people were involved. Al figured that if JFK hadn’t been shot, then his brother Bobby wouldn’t have run for president and also wouldn’t have been shot, and then Martin Luther King Jr. wouldn’t have been assassinated. Al went back to 1958 and shadowed Oswald off and on but had to return to the present when he found out he had cancer.
Al was, however, able to gather a notebook of information on Oswald, and convinces Jake to take up where he left off. Al’s journal also contains details of scores of past sporting events. He used this to make bets with bookies to win cash to fund his own trips and to stake Jake’s trip. Jake wants to test the rabbit hole for himself. He does so by going back to stop the slaughter of Harry Dunning’s family. If he can accomplish that, then he will try to stop Oswald. Jake goes back and becomes George Amberson. Trouble is, Jake didn’t anticipate meeting and falling in love with a librarian in the past named Sadie Dunhill. She’s a young woman who is separated form her husband, gets divorced and turns out to be Jake’s soul mate. This relationship complicates his quest to stop Oswald. Jake ends up saving Sadie from her crazed ex-husband, and Sadie ends up saving Jake.
The ending, in the Texas School Book Depository in Dallas, is predictably suspenseful and only ads to King’s reputation for building tension.
King does an excellent job of portraying the time period of the late 1950s and early 1960s, complete with details about cars, entertainment and of course, the prices of groceries and other goods.
The rabbit hole transports Jake back to a time without computers, the Internet, GPS, laser surgery or cell phones.
As much as he savors the simplicity of that era, he finds himself longing for items are common today but would have been the subject of science fiction back then.
Though I’ve not read any of Stephen King’s many other works and don’t enjoy horror fiction, after reading “11/22/63,” it’s to understand his great popularity.
Maggie Braun is a teacher at Manhattan High School.