I’ve recently been thinking about Stephen King’s science fiction novel, 11/22/63. The book is nicely summarized by this description of it on Amazon.com:
“Jake Epping is a thirty-five-year-old high school English teacher in Lisbon Falls, Maine, who makes extra money teaching adults in the GED program. He receives an essay from one of the students—a gruesome, harrowing first person story about the night 50 years ago when Harry Dunning’s father came home and killed his mother, his sister, and his brother with a hammer. Harry escaped with a smashed leg, as evidenced by his crooked walk.
“Not much later, Jake’s friend Al, who runs the local diner, divulges a secret: his storeroom is a portal to 1958. He enlists Jake on an insane—and insanely possible—mission to try to prevent the Kennedy assassination. So begins Jake’s new life as George Amberson and his new world of Elvis and JFK, of big American cars and sock hops, of a troubled loner named Lee Harvey Oswald and a beautiful high school librarian named Sadie Dunhill, who becomes the love of Jake’s life – a life that transgresses all the normal rules of time.”
If you enjoy science fiction and time travel novels, or if you are a Stephen King fan, then you’ll likely enjoy the book. He does a very good job, I believe, at capturing a sense of what the United States was like during that period between 1958 and 1963. Spoiler alert: in the end, Jake Epping discovers that his alteration to history was a mistake. The universe without Kennedy’s assassination turns out to be a miserable and unhappy place, and so he undoes his intervention.
The seventeenth century philosopher and mathematician, Gottfried Leibniz (who, together with Isaac Newton is credited with inventing calculus) wrote a book called Theodicy. In it, he argues that this “is the best of all possible worlds.” He arrived at this apparently counter-intuitive idea this way: if God is good and loving, he would want to make a world that is the best possible one for his creatures. If he is all powerful, then he would have the ability to do so. Thus, this world in which we find ourselves must be the best of all possible worlds. King apparently takes that basic point of view with his novel 11/22/63.
For those of us who are old enough, Kennedy’s assassination is not just a moment in history akin to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln or James A. Garfield. Instead, it is part of our lives: a memory.
At the time Kennedy was assassinated, I was in first grade. Its effect on me was similar to the effect the terrible events of 911 had on my children: something vague and unpleasant, but not particularly traumatic.
My memories of that Friday in 1963 are very much focused on my narrow interests and concerns as a small child. The school I attended in Albuquerque New Mexico was within easy walking distance of my house. I came home every day for lunch. Kennedy was assassinated at 12:30 PM central time in Dallas Texas. New Mexico was Mountain Time, so I arrived for lunch only minutes after he was shot. I was unhappy that I couldn’t watch my normal lunchtime television program. Instead, my mom insisted on watching “the news.” I didn’t comprehend that there was nothing else on at that moment.
After lunch I returned to school as normal. I had been looking forward to the afternoon because Friday was the day for “show and tell,” and this Friday it was my turn. I intended to “show and tell” about my rock collection. But not long after I got back to the classroom, the teacher told us school was being dismissed early. I had to go back home.
“What about show and tell?” I asked.
“Not today,” she responded.
So my biggest memory of that fateful day revolves around my disappointment at never being able to show everyone my rock collection. But my selfish, small-child disappointments weren’t over. There were no cartoons that Saturday morning, either. Instead, the only thing on TV was “news.” I did not much care for the news. But there was nothing else until Kennedy’s funeral on Monday, November 25, 1963.
The world was a much different place on September 11, 2001 for my children. They experienced none of my childhood disappointments. Although CNN, MSNBC, and FoxNews had nothing else to talk about, Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon continued with their regular programing. Since we had more than one television in our home, our children continued watching what they normally did. For my children, an awful day in history barely disrupted their lives at all.
In 1963 my life had returned to normal by the following Saturday: the cartoons were back. The priorities of a first grader are far different from those of his or her parents. But I probably remember Kennedy’s assassination better than my children now remember 911.