There are many things in life that I enjoy enough to wait for with giddy anticipation, like a kid who just knows when she looks outside that she’ll be waking up to a school-free snow day.

Any time Stephen King releases a new book, I am that kid doing the snow dance. I just can’t wait to get my hands on it. I love to read many authors, but King transports me to other minds, times and places in a way that no one else can.

So when 11/22/63 was released in November, you would have expected me to have it on hand the same day. Instead, I decided to wait until after Christmas to get it, so that it would be my reading treat over my long holiday work-break. I knew that if I put it on my Kindle beforehand, there was no way I could wait for those long and lazy days to get started.

As it turns out, it took me much longer than my 10-day break to finish the book. It wasn’t that King didn’t pull me in as he always does, because he certainly did. It was just that life happening and my own writing gave me a case of “reader, interrupted.”

For those who don’t know, 11/22/63 asks the question “what happens to the future if we could not only go back in time, but change the outcome of history?” Specifically, high school English teacher Jake Epping is asked by a friend to travel back in time and finish a job he couldn’t complete himself – stopping the assassination of JFK. At first, Jake is reluctant to take on such an overwhelming task. But then he learns about a tragic childhood event that happened to someone he knows and cares for as an adult – and decides that he has no choice but to dive into changing the future.

Because the “rabbit hole” (as Jake calls his time travel portal) can only take him back to 1958, Jake has to live in the past for 5 years to accomplish his mission. The novel is the story of a man who was in his late 30’s in 2011 discovering life in the late 50’s – of learning to savor simplicities he’d never known even while missing some modern conveniences. It is the story of a man building relationships with people who would have been long gone or very old in his 2011 life. It is the story of what happens when a man from the future who carries the weight of a world-changing mission on his shoulders finds himself trapped in the beautiful and everyday experience of falling in love.  Jake has to wrestle with deciding what matters more – changing the outcome of history or having a “normal” life with a woman who would have been old enough to be his grandmother in the future – if she was even still alive.

Such a storyline is a tall order for any writer. Here are my impressions after finally finishing King’s wild 11/22/63 ride.

– Once again, he is the master of pulling me into the impossible and making it real enough to hold me there. Do I believe someone could go back to 1958? No. Does King describe the time and place, the emotions and people, the everyday events and odd deja-vus and “harmonies” that Jake encounters along the way well enough for me to get enmeshed in the story and characters anyway? Of course he does. He’s Stephen King.  I had totally suspended my disbelief after the first few chapters.

– Lee Harvey Oswald seen through Jake Epping’s eyes is one of the better history lessons I’ve ever received. I’ve mentioned before that I grasp history best when I see it through a story. In 11/22/63, we see Oswald’s desperation, cruelty, and craziness. But we also see his smallness, and there are moments where you don’t exactly pity him, but you see something else. You realize that if he had been able to control his violent temper, see the good in his life along with the hardships, and accept being ordinary, he might have led an average but happy life. It wasn’t his uniqueness that made him a villain in the pages of history. It was his inability to accept being small.

– I loved Jake Epping for all his struggles and mistakes as well as for his heroism. But he wasn’t my favorite character. For me, he was eclipsed by Sadie Dunhill, the schoolteacher who steals Jake’s heart.

No main character in a King novel has a history that isn’t full of small or large strangenesses and horrors. Sadie was no different. She wasn’t just some auxiliary storyline love interest who fell into a weird world the day she met Jake. She had suitcases full of her own crazy already in her heart, and they changed the outcome of Jake’s story as much as her involvement with him altered hers.  

Of course King wouldn’t let Sadie be some wilted flower who always needed saving by the hero. But he didn’t make her superwoman either. There were times when I felt she was being so weak and stupid that I wanted to grab her and shake her. But there were more times that her determination, open-mindedness, and bravery made me wish I could call her a friend. For a late 50s/early 60s chica, Sadie grew herself a big set of balls. What I loved most about her was that growing them scared the crap out of her and she did it anyway.

Obviously, I recommend the trip into the past with King, Jake and Sadie. If you love King, a good story, food for thought, tales of love or just an adventure, it is a must-read. But I did come away with a couple of questions I wanted to throw out there to other readers.

1. As I’ve explored the guidelines of various potential short story publishers over the years, I’ve seen the following suggestion more than once – “don’t make your main character a writer. Bor-ing.”

King doesn’t listen to that rule in his novels. He doesn’t have to.  The lead in Salem’s Lot was a moderately successful writer. Stuttering Bill in “It” grew up to be a famous writer, and that’s what he was when he went home.  Mike Noonan in “Bag of Bones” was a wealthy novelist with a bad case of my-wife-is-dead writer’s block. Paul in “Misery” was a novelist who got kidnapped by a rabid fan. The main character in “Lisey’s Story,” was a woman encountering a weird world that was essentially created in the mind of her dead writer husband Scott.  Those are just the ones that come to mind in a two-minute think-through.

Jake Epping is a high school English teacher. He doesn’t become a published writer in the story, but he writes his butt off. He uses “working on a novel” as his cover story for being an unemployed man with enough money to get by, and actually works on the book that supports his alibi. Even when not talking about his book, Jake thinks like a writer. Early on, we spend a lot of time with him as he grades high school and adult learning class English papers.

For me, that stuff is like candy. As a writer, I love it when the characters I’m spending my time with write. It helps me relate to them. I usually get an unexpected lesson in writing from them even as I’m enjoying a good tale.

But what about non-writers? If you’ve read a lot of King, what does his leaning towards making his main characters successful or struggling novelists contribute or take away from his stories for you? Does it get old, or do you enjoy the glimpse into the writer’s life? Or, given that their profession is just one slice of the story and their personalities, does it matter at all?

2. In 11/22/63, Jake Epping spends some of his time in the past in Derry, Maine. King fans know Derry well, of course. I loved the return visit. As an avid King reader, it almost felt like one of the “harmonies” (the past and present coming together in odd ways) that kept happening to Jake himself. I especially enjoyed his encouter with Bev and Richie, two of the children who were lead characters in “It.” For me, it tied their own off-the-wall experiences to Jake’s in a way that made perfect sense. They were all insiders into the “out there.”

But thinking back, I wonder if Bev and Richie did anything for the story for those who had never read “It.” The encounter is too brief to get too much insight into them, but long enough that you know it is supposed to matter. If I didn’t already “know” these kids, I might have just thought their words and actions were unexplainable and just too off-the-wall. It probably wouldn’t have bothered me much – I’d have just chalked them up to something I didn’t understand yet, and so much happened later that I’d most likely forget about them.

But still – I wonder. Is putting in characters from other works with only minimal context a good idea? For King, it works. But he gets away with things other writers don’t. Like writing about traveling back in time to 11/22/63 in the first place. Because he’s King. If you’ve read the book, what did you think of Bev and Richie’s part?

If you haven’t read 11/22/63, I hope you add it to your list. If you have, what were your impressions?

About hawleywood40

Writer, Steelers Fan in Baltimore, Frequent Visitor to the Shot Fairy
This entry was posted in Books, Fiction, Reading, Writing, Writing A Novel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to 11/22/63

  1. l'empress says:

    The date doesn’t draw me; I lived that era — and that awful day. You are right, however; sometimes the best way to learn history is a story. (I usually feel vaguely guilty that someone else did the heavy research so that I could enjoy a story.)

  2. Stacy Green says:

    This sounds fascinating, Pam. I don’t usually read outside my genre (something I need to expand), but King is such a master, and I love history. The concept is really interesting, and your review is excellent. Thanks so much for sharing it with us. Definitely putting this on my list!

    • hawleywood40 says:

      Thanks Stacy! I need to get better about reading outside my genres too – although I did sort of do that when I jumped into Game of Thrones last year. Am so glad I did since now I’m totally hooked on something I never thought I would be : )!

  3. amyoung0606 says:

    To be honest, I could only read half of this post because I’m not done reading the book myself and I don’t want any spoilers, but the moment I am done with the book I am coming back to read the rest of your opinion because I love you view on King’s writing, He is my inspiration for writing and compels me to write the ideas bouncing around in my head. I can’t wait to read more of what you have here on your blog! 🙂

    • hawleywood40 says:

      Thanks Amy! I try to speak generically and avoid spoilers but sometimes even the smallest thing can be one – so in your shoes I’d do the exact same thing! I can’t wait to hear your thoughts on the book!

  4. I’ve read several of King’s works–the less gruesome ones. This sounds like a winner. Thanks for the inside scoop. I’ll have to read up on “It” to see if it’s worth a read before this one, though. Depends on the premise. I don’t like the real “out there” stuff (and I know he can go pretty far out there. I’ve read Misery, The Green Mile, Bag of Bones, The Dark Half, The Dead Zone, and Tommyknockers. You’re right out his ability to have the reader suspend her/his disbelief.

    • hawleywood40 says:

      “It” is definitely out there. And on the gruesome side at many points. 11/22/63 has a very different feel, and sounds like be one that resonates with you much more. Let me know what you decide and what you think when yo’ve finished one or both of them!

  5. Catie Rhodes says:

    The Butterfly Effect is one of my all-time favorite movies, and I loved 11-22-63 for the same reason I loved The Butterfly Effect. What if you could go back in time? Would your changes have a ripple effect? The answer is of course they would!

    Like you, I loved Sadie Dunhill and was just stunned by the outcome of her and Jake’s relationship. I thought the ending was poignant and dreamlike, but it made me sad.

    I think Stephen King’s protagonists reflect–even if it is just in some small way–what his life is like at any given point. So, when Salem’s Lot was written SK’s career was just beginning. By the time books like The Dark Half, Bag of Bones, and Lisey’s Story came out, he was mega-rich and mega-famous…and so were his characters.

    Great review. I always enjoy hearing your thoughts. You inspired us to watch Hell on Wheels, you know. And your impressions of it were spot-on. We totally enjoyed the series and were sorry to see the season end. 😀

    • hawleywood40 says:

      Hi Catie! I’m so glad you liked Hell on Wheels. I’m really looking forward to its return in the fall (and of course, also counting down the days until The Walking Dead comes back in February!).

      That’s a great observation about the parallels between where he is in his life when he writes. I always wondered how much Lisey and SKs wife Tabitha have in common. I just started reading SK’s son Joe Hill and will probably right about that experience soon!

      The outcome of the Sadie/Jake relationship made me cry. It was, as you said, so poignant, but so very sad. I still feel a little bit heartbroken when I think about it!

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