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The text focuses on a rabbit hole or bubble or portal through time (take your pick), one that transports Jake Epping, a recently divorced high school English teacher looking for meaning in his life, from the year 2011 back into 1958. Regardless of how long one stays in the past, only two minutes pass in the present, and when one returns to the past a second, third, fourth, time, the past has reset to the same day, hour, and minute as the first. It is as if you had never been there and had never journeyed back--you can buy the same clothes, car, and root beer. Looking for a vacation without taking a day off from work, heck even an hour, here you go. But does this journey come with a cost? Does time wrinkle and do these wrinkles matter?
This transportation, at the behest of an acquaintance and local burger jockey, places Jake at the center of a quandary, should he change the past, should he correct the misfortunes of others in order to create a new future, one devoid of a past where Harry the school janitor witnessed his father murder his family with a sledgehammer or should he leave well enough alone? Thus Jake enters the past multiple times with plans both big and small, but in the end he enters with the question of whether he should stop a more meaningful event than a small time family murder or the paralysis of a young girl in a hunting accident: the assassination of John F. Kennedy. If he changes these things, what will happen to the future? Will chaos reign? Will wars be avoided and lives saved? Will another World War surface? The butterfly effect is put into full view as Jake ponders what to do, and perhaps this fact is question far too overtly with almost Marty McFly obviousness, but at the same time, King works to fold the them into the narrative while reminding you that the past is the past, it has happened and should perhaps be left alone.
The question over what should be changed if anything at all is pondered over 800 plus pages, and the narrative, pumped through with history about Lee Harvey Oswald, holds together fairly well. One can get lost at times in a tale that spans five years in the not so distant past, and at times King seemed to get lost in the stories of teaching, stalking, and romance himself, but at others an attentive reader can note that such tangents follow Jake’s actual thinking. Jake is forced to contemplate whether he should stop an infamous crime while living in the past for five full years, an action that has him unwittingly dropping anchor, forging connections, and falling in love. While these moments can drag the reader off course, King picks up the slack by reminding the reader of the moral dilemma his protagonist faces. Yet Oswald and his potential crimes loom ahead, a beacon of danger in the distance that Jake must confront and either accept or deal with.