Jake Epping is a thirty-five-year-old high school English teacher in Lisbon Falls, Maine, who makes extra money teaching adults in the GED program. He receives an essay from one of the students—a gruesome, harrowing first person story about the night 50 years ago when Harry Dunning’s father came home and killed his mother, his sister, and his brother with a hammer. Harry escaped with a smashed leg, as evidenced by his crooked walk.
Not much later, Jake’s friend Al, who runs the local diner, divulges a secret: his storeroom is a portal to 1958. He enlists Jake on an insane—and insanely possible—mission to try to prevent the Kennedy assassination. So begins Jake’s new life as George Amberson and his new world of Elvis and JFK, of big American cars and sock hops, of a troubled loner named Lee Harvey Oswald and a beautiful high school librarian named Sadie Dunhill, who becomes the love of Jake’s life—a life that transgresses all the normal rules of time.
Before I start my review of 11/2263, I need to share why I needed to read this book. I’m a so-so Stephen King fan; my two favorite King books are IT (although I’ve had an irrational fear of clowns ever since I finished the book for the first time) and The Stand (whenever I come down with some type of flu bug, I’m sure it’s Captains Trips). Scary stuff. But my reason for reading 11/22/63 is that I will never forget, the day President Kennedy was assassinated. I was a junior in high school, and school was dismissed early on that awful day. There were hundreds of students at West High School, and it was really spooky how quiet we all were as we left the building. I walked home, went into my house, and saw my Republican parents standing in front of our black and white television watching Walter Cronkite report on the assassination. It was early afternoon, and my father had just brought my mom home from work. They still had their coats on. My mother was sobbing, and tears were running down my dad’s face. Kennedy was the president, to my parents, and he deserved respect even if they thought he was a political dirt bag.
In 1963, there was no Internet, no 24 hour news stations, no cell phones. We had television, radio, and newspapers. Public knowledge of Kennedy’s marital indiscretions were not widely discussed in the news, although I remember my father telling us that “Kennedy’s old man paid Jackie a bundle of money to stay married to Jack.” For many of us, President Kennedy was young, married to a beautiful woman, had two young children, and he was going to change the world.
All of those dreams died on 11/22/63, and the world as I knew it started to change. The following years were tumultuous in the U.S.–Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. were assassinated, we had race riots, the Viet Nam war and the anti-war movement, just to name a few things. Conspiracy theories about the Kennedy assassination just kept popping up. All one had to do was mention the name Zapruder, and everyone knew about his homemade movie of the assassination. And I often wondered how things would be different if President Kennedy had not been killed.
But having read a number of Stephen King’s books, I waited months before tackling 11/22/63. The book is 849 pages long, and it sat on my nightstand for almost four months. Then I got a chance to purchase the audio book and listen on my iPhone. So I listened to 11/22/63, but also read about one-half of the printed book as well. There were lots of details, and I didn’t want to miss a thing, because I got hooked on the first page.
11/22/63 is Stephen King at the top of his game. King just doesn’t write the way people talk, he’s able to write the way people talk to each other. This makes it dead simple for me to identify with his characters, even the ones that scare the bee-jeepers out of me (like Pennywise the clown in IT).
Bullshit. You’re young. As long as you don’t get run over by a taxicab or have a heart attack, you’d live long enough to know how things turn out.
I sat silent, looking down at my lap and thinking. Al let me. At last I raised my head again.
You must have read a lot about the assassination and about Oswald.
Everything I could get my hands on, buddy.
For me, this conversation between Jake Epping and Al Templeton just flows like a conversation between two people, not characters in a book. Of course, in real life you probably wouldn’t hear people calmly discussing how to time travel back to the sixties (but if you do, could you send me an email and let me know what you heard?). King makes me wish these characters were real; heck, I can even pretend that they are real.
Every word of 11/22/63 is faithful to the story; it might appear that King is going off on a tangent at times (like when he has Jake Epping betting on a prize fight), but it turns out to be a big part of the story.
Jake Epping is a reluctant hero, a guy just living an everyday, kind of boring life, when a telephone call sends his world into a tailspin. Literally. Jake suffers from self-doubt, and is sometimes just scared spitless. Not to mention getting a few bumps, bruises, and broken bones along the way. Jake’s story is thrilling, scary, heartbreaking, and wonderful. Just like life, there’s some good stuff, and there’s a fair measure of ca-ca. The 11/22/63 audio book is performed by actor Craig Wasson; he tells Jake’s story with a passionate honesty. It must have been hard for one actor to be all of the characters in this story, and I felt that Wasson did most of them justice. One character sounded like James Stewart to me, another one like John Houseman, but overall I enjoyed Wasson’s reading of this story.
As I was listening to and reading this book, a few people (all younger) asked me about my current title. I answered 11/22/63, and they asked me what that date meant. When I told them that it was the day President Kennedy was assassinated, and that I remembered every moment of that day, these wonderful folks nodded, giving me incredulous looks, like I was referring to the moment when humans were finally able to walk upright. Ha! Trust me, being older than almost everyone else around you can be loads of fun sometimes.
There are many details in this book, lots of characters, a bit o’ history, and a lot of good old fashioned science fiction and fantasy. King took a specific event in American history and created a whole new world, where real people and fictional characters inhabit the same world. At times I just sobbed, then I would get mad as hell, like when the story shifted to Lee Harvey Oswald. I was emotionally invested in this book, and got to the point where I had to finish it, and right away. And then I was just sad that the book was finished. Mr. King reads his own afterward and acknowledgments on the audio book, and I enjoyed this part a lot. I will listen to this story again, I’m sure, and probably read the print version all the way through.
If you have read this far, you will not be surprised that I’m giving 11/22/63 5 stars, simply a must read. Even if you don’t know or care who President Kennedy was, 11/22/63 is the story of an everyday guy who tries to change history, to make the world a better place by saving a man that many people believed could have changed the world, if only he had lived.
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