11/22/63 by Stephen King
*This reflection contains spoilers.*
What a great way to start 2018! 11/22/63 by Stephen King is the first book I finished in the year, although I read about half of it in 2017. Despite a slow start, once I had time to dedicate to this 849 page book, I devoured it. The premise is fascinating: if you could go back in time, would you? And if you could go back in time and change an important historical event, would you? What happens to Jake, the protagonist, goes well beyond the basic elements of those two questions.
Stephen King takes his time with this story. In my opinion the first 300 pages could have been an entirely separate novel itself as a prequel. Having heard a lot about the novel, I knew Sadie would be an important character, but I was shocked when she didn’t appear until almost halfway through the book.Regardless, over the course of 800 plus pages, a beautiful story of love, power, mystery, and internal turmoil develops. When Jake decides to embrace the past and attempt to change the course of history, he finds himself confronted by the problems of the late 1950s, early 1960s America. Race relations, the Cold War, and cigarette smoke rule the day. Not that the 2010s are perfect, but they are different and going from the modern world to the world sixty years ago, naturally takes some adjustment. Jake proceeds cautiously with how he speaks and acts, but when he falls in love with Sadie, the game changes.
Jake and Sadie’s love story is one of the best I’ve read. Each character is independent and confident, despite the baggage of their pasts. Sadie’s failed and abusive marriage, and her self-absorbed, domineering mother haunt her and dictate many of her choices. Similarly, Jake’s failed marriage and the time travel he can’t talk about put a lot of weight on his interactions and relationships with others. Initially, their relationship is a precarious balance of lies, half truths, and meeting small town expectations. When Sadie can no longer tolerate her ignorance of Jake’s past, she ousts him from her life. As a reader, I really appreciate King’s writing of (generally) strong female characters. Why should Sadie stick around with another man who lays a broom on the bed? Who only gives a small portion of himself and not all of himself to the relationship when she is giving everything? Although it is not an easy choice for her to make, I respect it. Furthermore, when she and Jake ultimately do reconnect, he still won’t tell her everything, but he tells her enough for her to stay by his side. It is another example of balance. Sadie didn’t need to know everything, but she needed to know enough to trust she wouldn’t be hurt. Once she does, their relationship flourishes and she stands by him through the end and even attempts to complete Jake’s task, when the “abhorrent past” gets in the way. The novel shows their relationship and dedication grow, as they each take care of eachother in a time of great need, nursing the other back to health, and providing encouragement. Aside from the terrible injuries and the time travel, it is the type of relationship most people look for and hope for with a life-long partner.
An interesting discussion would be a comparison between Jake and Sadie, and Roland and Susan. You could also add Susannah and Eddie, but there is something that sets them apart, maybe that we don’t get as in depth with their love story as we do with Jake and Sadie and Roland and Susan. The lovers in 11/22/63 are in a much more mature relationship, it is more realistic and less idealistic, but their love and passion is clear. Both male partners have a task to do that takes priority, but in the end, Jake seems to decide Sadie is more important, although both female partners die in their effort to help their lover meet their goals. I could probably write an entirely separate post about that, so I will move on for now.
Aside from the amazing characters and romance built by King, a greater question underlies the whole novel, without being too pushy or overdone. What would happen if the past could be changed? The conclusion most writers have come to is: not what you expect. King’s conclusion is the same. An act to prolong the life of J.F.K. would in theory benefit the country and aid its civil rights progression, but who really knows what would happen. King’s alternate reality is a scene out of a horrific war film, or dystopia. While it was extreme, it is the future Jake needed to see to know he could not change the past.
Jake constantly reminds himself “the past doesn’t want to be changed,” “the past is abhorrent,” and the past fights back, but it isn’t until he sees how the future can change, that he realizes the magnanimity of that fact and the calamity that occurs when it is changed. For us as readers, the past can’t be changed. In many ways, “it is what it is.” But we can never neglect the past. Saying “it is what it is” suggests that we can do nothing about it, which is true, but we can learn from it. We can acknowledge and recognize the atrocities of the past so they are not repeated and so that groups of people who have been marginalized are given the voice, respect, and positions they deserve. America is currently struggling with that, because we seem to want to forget the mistakes we made in the past or brush over them with a quick fix, but we need to recognize the systems that caused those problems, see how they remain in place today, and talk about them differently.
I’m not sure if Jake fully embraces or learns that lesson, because he is preoccupied with a love he lost and can never get back. Fortunately, King allows for a satisfying ending, in which Jake learns at least one person had a happily ever after, and a long, impactful life because of his decision not to change the past. And somehow – maybe it is the beam – she seems to recall Jake, or at least feel a pleasant connection to him, despite never having met.