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The People Collection, Zenna Henderson

July 11, 2011

The People Collection, Zenna Henderson (1991)
Review by Jenni Scott

Zenna Henderson’s Pilgrimage: The Book of the People is an early entry on the SF Mistressworks list: a 1961 collection bringing together a number of short stories originally published in the 50s. Rather than just collecting together the individual stories into an anthology, the author wrote interstitial connecting material, effectively turning the separate items into something like a novel; clearly the individual stories had all had a coherent background in the first place, to enable this to work. The subsequent publication The People: No Different Flesh (1966) worked in the same way, to fill in more of the overarching story of extremely human aliens who crash-land in rural Arizona following the break-up of their home planet, and who subsequently have to find a place for themselves on Earth despite their differences from us earthfolk. Out of print for many years, the 90s saw two separate reprints of Henderson’s People stories, in the form of a Corgi reprint of Pilgrimage & No Different Flesh with four additional stories (The People Collection, 1991); and a NESFA (New England Science Fiction Association) edition of the two books with six additional stories, including one previously unpublished (Ingathering: The Complete People Stories of Zenna Henderson).

I’ve had the collected People short stories since the Corgi edition came out. The reason I bought it then was because of my familiarity with various of the stories which tended to get printed in a number of older anthologies; now, however, I suspect that the name Zenna Henderson rings few bells with most sf readers unless they buy second hand anthologies with pulpy covers. It’s not the top of my list of re-reads but it’s got staying power, and every so often I find myself repeating one or two of her phrases in my head: a child crooning to her dolls that they would shortly go up “Inna blaza glory!”; the nearly-Spanish-sounding ejaculation “Adonday veeah!”.

In many ways, Henderson’s stories must now be highly unfashionable. For a start, they’re about as far away from hard sf as you can get and deeply culturally-specific to boot. Her aliens look human enough to pass as such on Earth, ok fine maybe, but they also have names like Timmy and David, can interbreed with humans (though not without being surprised that this is the case), and follow American norms and culture only better – more morally, more uprighteously. Oh yeah, the stories are also quite noticeably religious, which must be enough to damn them in many people’s eyes. Henderson, however, is nothing like a guilty pleasure, simply a good read and a comforting one to boot. Don’t get me wrong, bad things do happen, and not just to bad people – named characters, children and even babies die, but not to make a point so much as because death is part of the world and of our lives. At the end of Henderson’s People stories, though, the protagonists have learned and grown, even if the process is painful; they are fundamentally stories of hope.

The central concept of the collection is that at the end of the 19th century (that is, the turn of the century from Henderson’s perspective), a number of small space-lifeboats landed around the Southwest of the US, crashing to a greater or lesser degree. The surviving inhabitants had to try to find each other, where they had been separated from their loved ones, and to find a place where they could make a community in the face of disbelief, fear, and even murderous attacks on the part of the human locals. Why? Because although looking entirely human outwardly, the People have special powers of telepathy, telekinesis, dowsing, and more gifts that are specific to Henderson’s stories: weaving with sunlight, setting metal to glow hot or cold. Henderson’s characters are different from the Earth folk around them, and different is dangerous – or dead.

At the same time, the People’s differences are also delightful; their extra powers are used to enjoy the physical world that surrounds them (viewing sunsets from the vantage point of someone who can fly), and of helping each other even at cost to themselves. Although the religious tone is clearly at the forefront of the stories, the message is one of love of the physical world and its beauty, the importance of being yourself as strongly and truly as you can be, and of using all the gifts you have even though these will mark you out. Despair and self-loathing are the enemies, not conventional immorality (though her characters pretty much do stick to conventional morality nevertheless). The earthling characters that the People interact with, and the reader, end up wanting to be like these cheerful, friendly, willing, individuals who are just full of life.

The things that I can imagine might stick in the craw of a reader new to Henderson’s world is that appearance of sentimentality at which the last sentence hints, along with the romance that pervades the pages as many of the female characters fall for their One True Love. I would say it’s not actually sentimental so much as comforting; characters struggle with the bad things that do happen and have happened in the past, but a lot of the focus is on getting better, getting well (mentally and physically). It’s not what you’d call a particularly feminist world but it still has strong women characters who do their own stuff and are driven by their own motivations. True, a large part of that is about looking forward to marriage and having babies, but done as a natural background part of life rather than an all-encompassing goal, and accompanied by companionship and mutual support, not just surface attraction. Henderson is clear that women can interact with men, and girls with boys, on terms of friendship, even if it’s clearly going to turn into love subsequently; it can be done without besmirching it with lust, as it were.

The contemporary cultural impact of this now-unfashionable writer was widespread enough at the time to have inspired a film version starring William Shatner. She also had imitators, in particular Alexander Key, the author of the book of Escape to Witch Mountain, which shares a telling number of similarities to the stories included in Pilgrimage. In fact, enough people have questioned whether this is a case of outright plagiarism to cause the author of this page to address the issue. For what it’s worth I imagine that website has the right of it – Henderson popularised a very powerful archetype and Key picked up on it and on various identifiable elements. In reading this collection that powerful archetype, and many vivid characters, will come to life for you.

This review originally appeared on jinty.

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