**Warning! Possible Spoilers Ahead! **
What would you do if you could turn back time?
Could you kill one man, if you thought that his death could prevent the death of thousands?
It has long been debated that had JFK not been assassinated, the Vietnam war would have never occurred; or would not have occurred on the level that it did.
I am too young to remember the Kennedy assassination. My mom, however, remembers it vividly—exactly where she was and what she was doing. She tells me the whole nation just stopped—and nothing was ever the same again.
The only thing I can think to compare it to would be 9/11. Anyone of my generation would have no trouble remembering their exact location on that day either. I was at a post office, ironically. The whole thing happened while I was in my car. When I got back everyone in the office was huddled around a computer screen watching the news. I remember standing there in the lobby with two of those white USPS totes in my arms. One of my coworkers said “A plane hit the World Trade Center.” I remember saying, “What, like a Cessna?” Nope. Not a Cessna. And the nation stopped again. And nothing has been the same since.
60,000 Americans were killed in Vietnam—it is estimated at least 1,600 went missing and 150,000 were injured. All of America was affected in one way or another by what I have heard termed a “police action.”
Vietnam polarized the American public, coming right on the heels of the Kennedy assassination to a country that was already at odds with itself.
But what if you could change all that, simply by being in the right place, in the right time?
This is the dilemma faced by Jake Epping in SK’s novel 11/22/63.
Jake is a recently divorced high school English teacher. He is portrayed as an everyday average guy—no historian, no superhero—just an all-around “good” guy. He doesn’t have a lot holding him to his life.
Jake is pressed into service by his dying friend Al Templeton. Al has discovered what he calls a “rabbit hole” –a portal— into 1958, conveniently located in the storeroom of his diner. Al uses it as a novelty at first—hey, wow, 1958—then as a cheap way to get supplies for his business. He determines not only does every trip through the portal bring you back to the same exact moment in time, but also that every trip is a complete and total reset, a clean slate, while only the space of two minutes has passed in the “real” world. The only person in 1958 that seems to have any knowledge that something is strange is a mysterious bum that Al calls the Yellow-Card Man, who is always sitting near the entrance to the portal. Even his suspicion is just that, suspicion, a vague sense that he has seen you before. Al figures that he is catching the frequency of the time portal due to his proximity to it and thinks no more of it.
After a while he gets to thinking about changing things. He conducts an experiment, which is successful. That gets him thinking of bigger and better things. If you can change one thing in the past that affects a small amount of people, what would be the outcome if you changed something big? Something like….stopping the Kennedy assassination?
Jake, of course, is leery of the whole thing at first, and spends his first trip in wide eyed wonder. He returns with questions, and the desire to conduct an experiment of his own. He wants to prevent a murder of the family of one of his favorite GED students. The family in question had been murdered horribly on a Halloween night by their estranged father and husband. This would mean spending upwards of a month in the time portal, waiting for Halloween. Al encourages the experiment; after all, he did the same thing just to see if it could be done. However, Al warns Jake, the past doesn’t WANT to be changed. It will fight you tooth and nail to keep things flowing in the way that they are “meant” to be.
Jake enters the “rabbit hole”, armed with 1958 era money and a cover story from Al, along with plenty of advice. The family he is trying to save lives in Derry—a familiar place to anyone who knows Stephen King’s work. Jake actually comes to Derry just as the events of (the novel) It are winding down—he has a conversation in the park with both Richie Tozier and Beverly Marsh, two characters from It. He senses that something in Derry is just “not right,” and spends the time he has to wait there gathering information about the situation he is trying to correct. When the time comes, he finds out exactly what Al meant by the past fighting back. It fought him harder than it fought Al, because he’s not just trying to save one person, he’s trying to prevent the death of an entire family. Despite everything the past threw at him, he completes his mission and returns to the present day. He is astounded to find that things did change, but is still leery of taking on a challenge as big as the one Al proposes. It would mean spending years in the past—and if you were not successful, it would be years before you could try again.
Al, as I mentioned, is dying. He developed lung cancer while making his attempt to save JFK. He came back in the hope that he could convince Jake to take up his mission. He has compiled vast amounts of detailed notes on the movements and whereabouts of Lee Harvey Oswald to this end. Also, sports results for the entire space of time, as a means of income. He arms Jake as best he can, and leaves him to make the decision, because Al’s time has run out. Jake obviously takes the mission on after Al’s death, collecting the notebooks and preparing to spend the next 5 or so years in the past.
All of these events are just set up for the main portion of the book, the years leading up to 1963. Upon re-entering 1958, Jake has to once again, save the person Al experimented with, then go up to Derry to prevent that murder, because if you remember, every trip in is a complete reset. Only where he returned to the present day before, now he continues on in 1958, biding his time until Lee Harvey Oswald returns to the United States.
Jake makes it to Texas after a length of time and scouts out the place that he knows the Oswalds will be living. Jake has the same reaction to Dallas that he did to Derry--that something was just not right there. The people he comes across there are as a whole, suspicious, or rude, or downright dangerous. I wondered, after finishing the book, if the reason he had such a hard time in Dallas was another layer of the past trying to “force him out”, or frustrate him on his mission. I understood the action in Derry, everyone knows Derry has more demons in it than your average hellmouth. Although he had originally planned to stay in Dallas, he winds up spending the intervening years before the Oswald’s arrival in a small town outside of Dallas called Jodie.
While in Jodie, he takes on substitute work at the local high school, which eventually turns into full-time. He makes himself a home there, although it is up to the reader to determine if this is a wise idea. Although, when stuck in the past, you can’t blame the man for getting comfortable. He eventually takes up with the school librarian, Sadie. He does good work in Jodie, helping many of his students develop into more fulfilled adults. He cannot let himself forget what he came for, however, and he knows that when the Oswalds return to the US that he has to be in place to do his job. Eventually this happens, and he has to leave Sadie behind in Jodie and move on to Dallas. He makes it his business to secure an apartment near them—across the street, or in the same building—keeping an eye on their comings and goings. Al never did determine in Oswald was acting alone or not that day, so Jake seeks to find out the truth of it.
I learned more about Lee Harvey Oswald in this novel than I ever did in school. It is meticulously researched and brought to life in such a way that you can almost hear the characters reciting the lines as you read. I actually googled pictures of Lee’s wife Marina, and his daughter, June, in order to “see” them better in my head. Lee Oswald was heavily involved in Marxism and created a pro-Cuba organization. Through his wife, who spoke very little English, he was involved with several Russian movers and shakers in town as well. I knew that he was and extremist, politically, but as I mentioned, I learned a lot more about his leaning in this novel than I ever knew before. I went back and looked at pictures of him and thought to myself, “How did this little twerp ever get everything to line up just right?” I didn’t see how he could have possibly done it all alone either. Was it really just a lucky collision of circumstances that lead to the assassination of the president? All this has been debated to death by people much smarter than me, so I’m not even going to attempt to offer an answer.
Events move forward; there is drama with Sadie and her psychotic ex-husband. He was granted what to me was probably has the most infuriating line in the book: “You can’t hit me, I’ve got mental problems, I’ve got a paper in the glove box of my car that says so.” UGH!! That one line made me want to reach through the book and throttle that little shit. If you’ve got enough brains to know you’ve got “mental problems” then you’ve got enough brains to know you shouldn’t have been doing whatever you were doing! Sorry, people who use things like that as an excuse to do wrong makes me blow my top. Onward, Jake becomes satisfied that Oswald was acting alone on the 22nd. He tweaks a thing or two to ensure this and time rolls on. Eventually the time arrives. If he thought the past tried to block him up in Derry…..man, he just didn’t know. The past throws absolutely everything it can at him, including the kitchen sink and the contents of the cabinets. It made for a hell of a ride to the conclusion.
I have tried not to give away too much in this review, but I have to say there was a twist--which I am not going to give away. All I’m gonna say about that is there is a correlation with the Dark Tower, as any King fan will be familiar with. And also I’ll say this--Ka is a wheel. And that wheel will always come back around again, usually to bite you in the ass. I don’t think any other ending than the one he gave it would have been right. I’m a fan, so I’ll admit I’m biased, but I thought this was an excellent novel from the Master of the Trade.