Yes, this is a book about a man going back in time to change the course of history. It’s not the first, and it won’t be the last. There is a plethora of media covering the alternate history that would have occurred had Hitler been killed before he could become the leader of Germany, and another plethora speculating the opposite: what if Hitler and the Nazis had won World War II? Some stories are more serious while others are more of Quentin Tarantino’s farcical Inglourious Basterds ilk. And Hitler’s rise to power is far from the only event altered in such stories. Harry Turtledove wrote a series in which the Confederacy won the Civil War, and Newt Gingrich one where the south at least won at Gettysburg. Alan Moore’s graphic novel Watchmen speculates on a United States that won the Vietnam War. Even fictional history has been changed, from Back to the Future to Doctor Who.
In most of these stories, the time-traveller doesn’t go back in time just to make a small alteration to the historical record; it’s usually some big event or, as a character in King’s novel calls it, the watershed moment. In 11/22/63, as the title indicates, it is Kennedy’s assassination, and high school English teacher is Jake Epping is the one sent to stop it. Epping steps back in time through a wormhole in a local diner and finds himself near Derry, Maine in 1958.
Note: Derry is a fictional town in Maine that, along with Castle Rock (which surprisingly does not get a mention in this book) serves as the setting for many of King’s works. However, Constant Readers (King’s term for his fans) with sharp memories may notice that Derry in 1958, specifically, was the backdrop for another of the author’s novels, a fact that becomes obvious as Epping meets two young children named Ritchie and Bev, and talks to them about their fear of clowns. This connection may lead readers to believe that there will be a far more supernatural element to the novel than there actually is, but it does add a creeping suspicion of some underlying evil beyond even the fantastical concept of time travel and alternate realities.
Anyway, Jake Epping goes back and, as you would expect a man in 1958 who plans to assassinate an assassin in 1963, does his best to lay low—first in Derry, then in Florida, and finally in a little town in Texas, where he goes back to teaching, and even meets a nice girl with whom he can settle down for a while. As you would expect a man in 1958 who plans to assassinate an assassin in 1963 who also happens to be in a book written by Stephen King, all does not go as planned. As the day grows closer, time and reality twist and tangle until the novel reaches it’s thrilling conclusion.
Well, okay, thrilling might be an overstatement. Anyone familiar with his work knows that endings aren’t Stephen King’s strongest suit (Under the Dome, anyone?). However, this book was engrossing up through the very end, and definitely one of his stronger finishes. But enough about the ending—you don’t really want to know if Jake Epping manages to stop Oswald, do you? So let’s back it up and talk about the worldbuilding.
Unlike some of his endings, the worldbuilding in King’s novels is rarely lacking. As I mentioned, he created not one but two towns and populated them with enough well-developed characters and minute details that you’d think you remember them from passing through on some family vacation in Maine. He created an entire universe for The Dark Tower and beyond that has slipped references and connections to the series in many of his other novels, linking their worlds together. The setting of 11/22/63 isn’t as fanciful as Mid-World, but once again Stephen King fills his novel with a real sense of place—tiny facts and characters who round out the world he has created.
The plot is equally compelling, focusing not only on the bigger picture of a plot to kill the president’s would-be killer (complete with speculation on what butterfly effect type repercussions it may have) but also, again, on the little details. On the school play at the school where Epping—now under the alias George Amberson—teaches in Texas. On the life of a man Epping met back in 2011. On the mysterious, “yellow card man” and on Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood.” In many alternate history books, the change occurs near the beginning, with the rest of the story exploring the fallout. In this novel, it is about the lead-up, and while that day in Dallas is still the climax, it is not the only event of importance.
I always have difficulty ranking books, so I don’t want to put this in my Top Five Stephen King Books, or my Top Ten, or whatever (although I suspect it would make the latter list and perhaps even the former). How could I compare 11/22/63 to The Dark Tower or Different Seasons or Needful Things, some of my other favourites? But I would definitely say that this one is a favourite, and one I’d certainly read again (which I think is high praise for an 800+ page book). If you like history, or time travel, or tearing the fabric of reality, 11/22/63 is for you.