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On one beautiful, clear, fall day in Chester's Mill, Maine, the unthinkable is about to happen. An airplane carrying a flight instructor and his student suddenly crashes, killing both; a man doing some gardening suddenly has his extended arm cut off; birds fall down dead from the sky; cars crash up against an invisible wall at full speed, killing the drivers and passengers. Witnesses to all these tragedies can't see anything that could be causing all the destruction. The road is clear, the air space is clear, they can see the sky and yet, when a car, a bird, or an airplane get near the border of Chester's Mill everything crashes as if an invisible dome were placed over the town. This is exactly what has happened.
The residents of Chester's Mill are panicked. They have no idea what is happening to them and they aren't alone. The rest of the country and the world are just as afraid since CNN keeps its cameras constantly on the little town.
The president of the United States gets involved. He's told that a drifter, Dale Barbara who was once a high ranking military man has been living in the town and working as the cook in the town's diner. The president decrees that Dale Barbara is now in charge of the town and the residents follow his orders. What the president doesn't know is that Dale has been having problems with some of the townspeople and was leaving Chester's Mill just as the dome came down. Barbara is now stuck in a town where some powerful citizens would like to see him dead.
Within twenty-four hours, a power struggle starts between the town's second selectman, Big Jim Rennie and Dale Barbara. Rennie wants to control the town and does everything he can to make sure that it happens.
Meanwhile, the children of the town are experiencing terrible dreams and mysterious seizures. Their dreams focus on Halloween but there's nothing sweet about their dreams. Instead of candy they're dreaming about fire falling from the sky and people burning. When they come round, they babble about stopping Halloween and the Great Pumpkin.
The reader is introduced to numerous characters living in Chester's Mill, including their dogs. The list is so long that there are a few pages at the beginning listing the characters and who they are and what they do. This is very helpful when you first start reading. I found myself going back and forth quite a few times but eventually I got to know them all. King has also supplied a map of the town since every part has something to do with the story and it's important to know where all the sites are.
An interesting thing about the story is that the dome becomes a secondary character to the book. It's the reason why all these people are stuck in Chester's Mill without any help from the rest of the world. We learn early on that the dome is stronger than any missile that the army throws at it and since we know that the dome is there and nothing can be done, the main focus of the novel is the people who live there.
We watch how Jim Rennie starts to rule the town with fear, lies, and violence. People are afraid of Rennie as he starts to hire thugs as new police officers. Rennie's main fear is that the dome will disappear and his drug manufacturing and selling outside Chester's Mill will be discovered. It's partially this fear of discovery and his love of power that keeps the story moving.
Like many of King's novels, there are sharply delineated good guys and bad guys. The book is an allegory. There is a message in the book that King doesn't really try to hide and the theme is always there. It becomes integral to how the book ends. Even in his afterward King mentions THE STAND, an earlier book that also has society trapped between good and evil.
The novel is massive. It runs to over a thousand pages and it does take time to read but it's one of King's best novels in a while. Even though there's murder in it and it gets a little bloody, the book is no where as near gory as some of King's earlier books.
The storyline is addictive. You see what the people of the town are doing just to survive but you still wonder just what the dome is. How did it get there? Did the military somehow create it to see how humans live with each other when they are really isolated? Many of the inhabitants of the town think just that, but there are others who believe that aliens have put up the dome. Either way, the question in the back of the reader's mind remains. How did the dome get there and when will it leave?
And, for fun, read the book carefully and see if you can recognize all the shout-outs King gives to other authors and books. Lee Child's great character, Jack Reacher, is mentioned a few times here and there are others.
UNDER THE DOME is worth the time it will take you to read it. Don't let the size of it frighten you. Take the time to visit Chester's Mill and all the people there but be happy that you're involved only as a reader because living under the dome with Big Jim Rennie running things is not something you'd really want to try.
§ Sharon Katz has been reviewing books for RTE for many years. She lives in Brooklyn.
Reviewed by Sharon Katz, October 2010
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