When I was approximately twelve years old, I experienced my introduction to Stephen King when I read the unabridged edition of The Stand. My parents raised me to be a reader so I had read hundreds of books but they had all been age-appropriate: Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, Bridge to Terabithia, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, Old Yeller, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and any number of Newbery Award winners my mom would bring home to feed my brain. Stephen King's The Stand was my first adult novel. Being the age I was, it felt dangerous and exciting to be reading that book. Even as I and the books I had been reading grew from elementary school to junior high school, nothing had yet reached the level of scale and depth I would experience with The Stand. It took me an entire summer to read it, but I adored every page and became a Stephen King fan for life.
Fast forward a couple-few decades and King is writing books faster than I can read them. Every time I feel like I have made some good headway into his body of work, I glance at an updated bibliography and am stunned by what I see. A year ago, my friend Jeff began pestering me to read 11/22/63. I owned a copy, a gift from a friend if I recall correctly, but I kept postponing it. This is a big book and I had allowed the volume of the novel to intimidate me. I am not twelve anymore and I had convinced myself that I did not have the free time to devote to such a large novel. Why not, though? I read the equally robust Under the Dome a few years ago and adored it. I had devoted time to books one and two of Patrick Rothfuss's beefy Kingkiller Chronicle. I was making excuses, weak ones at that, so I finally dove in.
Stephen King is known for his horror novels, but he has not limited himself to the genre. He branches out more often than most people realize and when he does, I find the result just as satisfying. 11/22/63 is just one of King's several non-horror novels and it is superb. A modern moral question with which we are often presented is whether we would travel back in time to kill an infant Adolf Hitler if we had the opportunity. King explores a similar argument in 11/22/63, but instead of asking whether it is OK to murder a baby if you know it grows up to be a monster, he suggests a more heroic path and asks what would happen if someone had the chance to prevent the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. This is a brilliant novel, masterfully constructed, and so much fun.
When English literature teacher Jake Epping is shown a portal to the past tucked away in the storage room of his neighborhood diner, he is not sure he believes his eyes. The diner owner, Al, says the portal always exits the same date and time in 1958 and he has been using it to try to stop the Kennedy assassination. Now, Al has taken ill, is unable to continue, and needs Jake to take his place. He warns Jake, though, that the past does not want to be changed and it will try to stop him every step of the way. With the portal dumping him into 1958, he will have to wait five years before he can attempt to stop the 1963 Kennedy assassination. That is a long time for the past to fight back. Jake agrees to take on the challenge and what follows is a wonderful story of perseverance and consequence.
I worried that the five-year gap Jake has to fill before he can attempt to save Kennedy was going to be a long-winded slog, but I should have trusted Stephen King. I was absolutely fascinated by Jake's activities during that period. As time marches toward the inevitable, Jake takes the opportunity to practice changing the past to varying degrees of success, all of which threaten his ultimate goal. Stephen King has always excelled at character. Whether his novels focus on a small number of characters or feature a huge cast, his characters are complex, interesting, and devastatingly human. They represent the best and worst of humanity and with a few exceptions, all are plausible. King introduces Jake to some great characters and even manages to humanize Lee Harvey Oswald. I am not saying the guy was a lovable chap I would invite over to watch Game of Thrones, but I found myself recognizing Oswald as something more than a simple villain and that is a testament to Stephen King's otherworldly ability to write characters who inspire one to read well past one's bedtime, even on a school night.
For longtime King fans, this story fits nicely into his established literary universe and there are references to previous works that I suspect will delight you. If this is your first Stephen King novel, there is no reason whatsoever for you to not enjoy this amazing story fully even without the knowledge of King's previous work and settings. Time travel is a difficult subject to write convincingly because there are so many questions, so many logical arguments. King's solution to this conundrum—I do not read a lot of time travel stories myself so it may not be entirely original—erases the need for these arguments and allows the reader the glorious freedom to just enjoy the story as it is presented and if one allows oneself that beautiful experience, the reward is so well worth it. This story is thrilling, intense, and full of moments that will make you forget to breathe, and if you are the type of person who enjoys a bit of romance in your novels, this story will kick you in the teeth. Is this book sitting on your TBR pile? Put it on the top. Right now. I will allow you to finish your current read, but 11/22/63 needs to be next on your list. I am not even kidding.