Do you ever look back at some event and think, “Wow, if only I could do that over again, everything would be different.” I’ve noticed that when I do that, or hear other people talking about it, I tend to assume positive outcomes. You know, if you had only done this instead of that, some bad thing would have been avoided, some great thing would have happened instead, and so forth.
In his incredibly riveting book 11/22/63, Stephen King explores the idea of changing events and whether changing a tragedy would really have a good result. The story involves a “bubble” in time that allows the main character, a high school teacher, to go back in time to try to stop JFK from being shot. The character assumes that averting the tragedy will cause a cascade of positive events: surely the US will avoid the Vietnam quagmire, civil rights will unfold more quickly and with less bloodshed, the Cold War will be truncated, and so forth. As he goes about his mission, the teacher saves a family from a terrible accident, helps 1960s high school students find their gifts, and falls in love. But obviously there are many obstacles and conflicts, and the ultimate result of the mission is not what you might expect.
This is the first Stephen King book I’ve read other than his memoir/writing book, and I was impressed. King is a master of pacing and his writing is sharp and compelling. I picked up the book (a mere 849 pages) and was unable to stop for the night until I reached page 289. That’s pretty impressive hold for a long book with a historical focus. I then proceeded to finish the whole book by the next day, in a total of nine hours. So I really flew through it, which I could only do because King’s writing is so tight and his prose enables the story rather than competing with it. Although you don’t get the gasp-worthy gorgeous turns of phrase and deep thoughts common to literary novels, you also don’t have to stop and ponder words and phrases instead of the actual story and themes.
King does a great job recreating the past and giving a full and nuanced picture of the 1960s, both in New England and Texas settings. He did a particularly nice job of conveying the atmosphere of very different settings, without resorting to heavy-handed techniques to let the reader know that one place was supposed to feel ominous and another bucolic.
Time travel is always an intriguing concept, and King clearly spent a lot of time thinking through his conception of how it might work and what the pitfalls would be. He added some good twists that keep the reader engaged rather than falling back on existing tropes.
At the same time that I was reading 11/22/63 I was also reading about God’s sovereignty in another book (review upcoming) and although I have no idea about King’s spiritual views I found it interesting to think about the idea of going back to change the past in light of a sovereign God who allows tragedy to occur but Who is still good. The book seems to conclude that sometimes events that seem to be terrible actually prevent greater horrors, which matches well to the idea that we don’t understand why God allows bad things to happen but we can still believe that He is good and loves us. It’s a challenging topic, and I didn’t expect to start thinking about it in the context of a Stephen King novel, but there you go.
If you’re looking for a really gripping book to read, and either have a good solid chunk of time to read or have the ability to put down a real page turner (an ability I have observed in others but do not possess myself) I would highly recommend 11/22/63. If you have read it, let us know what you think!
Also, as an aside, if you’re in the Indianapolis area, the book club I attend is discussing this book on June 20, so let me know if you’d like to join us!
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