In Robert Rice’s story collection, Burn Marks, five pieces of history are re-examined with fictionalized touches conjured up in the author’s fertile imagination.
In “Dejá Blue,” a girl with more than her fair share of arrogance encounters two college boys, Richard Leopold and Nathan Loeb, who have their own snobbish proclivities. Dejá’s attraction to Richard may lead, in Rice’s cleverly constructed police procedural, to participation in the infamous murder of a young boy.
Ethel Rosenberg, an avowed Communist sympathizer in “The Rumor,” agrees to type some documents for her brother--documents that will condemn both her and her husband to the electric chair. Ethel’s real role in this storied case has long been questioned; Rice takes a sympathetic look inside the motivations that guided her.
“The Jumper” concerns a notorious 1971 skyjacker known to the public only as "D.B. Cooper." Rice postulates a girlfriend for Cooper—Siobhan Mello, a prison warden. His fictional female deflects FBI interrogators with sarcasm and caginess after they reveal that Cooper has mentioned her name, and later helps them track Cooper down.
“The Conductor” is Miles Sapp, a struggling South Carolina farmer in the midst of the Civil War who overhears John Wilkes Booth and another man conspiring to assassinate President Lincoln. Sapp, though a loyal Southerner, begins composing a warning letter to the president. When he sees a slave being violently beaten, his loyalties shift even more until he becomes a secret “conductor” on the Underground Railway.
The last offering in Burn Marks focuses on the John F. Kennedy assassination. Rice’s portrait of Lee Harvey Oswald’s mother, Marguerite, often seems to match with reality. Marguerite, a rough-cut Texan with nothing to lose and no other prospects, shamelessly attempts to grab the limelight for personal gain. “The Fort Worth Star” paints investigators eager at first to hear Marguerite’s perspective, growing gradually suspicious of the impulses that direct her.
Each of Rice’s stories has been well researched, with many historical details to underpin his rich inner vision. Each story contains fantasized bits of letters: a hard-boiled cop addresses the Tooth Fairy; a condemned woman asks Santa Claus for a miracle; a tough-minded female pens an exhausted plaint to her mother; a morally conflicted Southerner reaches out to Abe Lincoln; and the publicity-crazed mother of an assassin writes as an equal to the mother of the man he murdered. In each section, there are people to admire and others to despise, according to the author’s sensitive depictions. His portrayal of Ethel Rosenberg, for example, offers a sympathetic slant with which many concur, while his Carolina farmer demonstrates how personal sorrows may endow a man with empathy leading to unsung heroism.
With Burn Marks, Rice--who has garnered awards for his screenplays--enters the realm of historical fiction and rightfully claims his place in that genre. He is both skilled and comfortable putting a “play within a play.” His creative gifts include the ability to build new scenarios out of timeworn news, and the drive to delve deeply into the human psyche, giving voice to the best and the worst of our dreams and desires.