Transports and Disgraces

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

The title of Robert Henson’s collection of short stories, Transports and Disgraces, is taken from a poem by Emily Dickinson:

The Past is such a curious Creature

To look her in the Face

A Transport may receipt us

Or a Disgrace—

Unarmed if any meet her

I charge him fly

Her faded Ammunition

Might yet reply.

Enchantment or infamy, to which of these ends do Henson’s chosen characters come true? History is often related in terms of facts and figures, names and dates, or it is obscured by the twistings and turnings of the path that legend takes. Here, however, that which is most often taken as truth assumes a different aspect, and those who seemed the underdogs show a surprising new face.

The first story illustrates the scheme delightfully. “Billie Loses her Job” throws new light on the legend of John Dillinger, Public Enemy Number One, an American hero. The protagonist is Evelyn “Billie” Frechette, hailed by the press as the only woman Johnny ever loved. She is, strictly speaking, a gun moll, but Henson creates depth beneath the surface and gives Billie a story to tell about life with Dillinger that is uniquely her own.

Imprisoned for nearly two years for harboring a criminal, Billie is persuaded to join a traveling carnival after her release to exalt the legend of the Indiana farm boy who made good. Henson, who follows the facts which can be gleaned from the newspapers of the day and various books written about Dillinger, fictionally teams her with Dillinger’s father who is on the same circuit. They are constantly at odds because the man his father remembers is not the man Billie recalls. In fact, Billie recalls very little that pleases Mr. Dillinger or the expectant audience. She confuses her favorite song “Home on the Range” as his favorite; bread and gravy, her best-liked meal, is mistaken as his—but the audience is not to be fooled. “She ain’t Billie Frechette ...” they mumble to one another, and by the end of the run she is being heckled.

Billie, clearly not stupid, simply refuses to be anything other than herself, and that person is quite clear minded. Her alliance with Dillinger spanned a year, and although she cannot recall how many scars he had, she surely does reveal some details which vilify the legend, but she does this passively, unconsciously self-assured. Billie is not bent on destroying the legend; she merely does not want to become a part of it.

Another story which deals with the myths surrounding infamous historical figures is “Lizzie Borden in the P. M.” This selection was an O. Henry prize story in 1974. Again, the main character is not the one traditionally portrayed. Lizzie’s older sister Emma, a colorless, retiring old maid, is the storyteller, and her tale is a chilling one.

Henson’s technique here is to call on historical events and consider them from Emma’s sharp minded point of view. The saga of Lizzie Borden is viewed by historians from one extreme to the other. There is much opinionated wrangling about whether she was guilty of hacking her father and stepmother to death or not. Henson’s opinion, voiced through Emma, is that she was quite mad, one of those cool psychotics who live among us and possess a charisma that is disarming. Emma, however, is not to be fooled. She has lived with Lizzie too long and has seen too many inconsistencies. After Lizzie’s acquittal, they live in the same house for twelve years, and during this time Emma becomes increasingly convinced of her sister’s craziness and probable guilt.

Drawing from the transcripts of the trial, Henson has Emma recall a series of events that quite logically lead to Lizzie’s culpability: vying with her stepmother for her father’s attention (she insists that Mr. Borden wear her high school ring on the little finger of his left hand where it clashes noticeably with his wedding ring); her extreme agitation when she learns that he has purchased a house in his wife’s name without telling his daughters of his intentions (she now refuses to speak to either of them or to dine with them); showing the police exactly where a daylight robber has entered the house (the only items stolen were those belonging to Mrs. Borden, both daughters and the maid were home when the robbery took place, and Lizzie has to be sent to her room for she “could not stop talking and interfering”); placing a lock on her side of a bedroom door adjoining the bedroom of her parents (after her father has placed one on his side, not entirely convinced of Lizzie’s innocence in the robbery), and, finally, her questionable behavior the day of the...

(The entire section is 1935 words.)