Mining the Genre Asteroid: Zenna Henderson

26 Sep

Mining the Genre Asteroid is Paul Weimer’s look at the history of the science fiction and fantasy field, bringing to light important, interesting and entertaining books from science fiction and fantasy’s past to you.

In Gathering

The stories take place in mid 20th century Arizona.  Stranded aliens live in tiny, isolated communities. They’re human-looking-and-acting aside from a few unusual (and often hidden) abilities and powers, and the stories focus on their isolation and the challenges of being strangers in a strange land. Many of the characters are children, or young people, coming to terms with their status as being of The People, as well as the challenges of just growing up and coming to maturity.  Some journey to the small communities unaware of their own special heritage, only learning of their forgotten and lost status as being of the People after they arrive. These are poetic, beautiful stories that focus on character, emotion, and a light touch on genre elements. Her voice is strong, clear and unique.

Is this the latest work from a slipstream writer? An up and comer that I might meet at Wiscon or Readercon? A teacher at Clarion, perhaps? The newest writer for Angry Robot’s Strange Chemistry line?

No, this a writer, a woman writer, no less, who wrote the bulk of her work in the 50’s and 60’s, and not under a pen name, either.

Let me introduce you to Zenna Henderson.

Zenna Henderson’s The People Stories  do all the above and more. Themes of community, of spirituality, of belonging, apartness, isolation from the outside world and more are shot through her work. Raised as a Latter-Day Saint, one can easily see isolated, small, Mormon towns and communities as her model and template for creating the world of The People. The People consider humanity outside of their borders to be “The Outsiders” in exactly the same way a practicing Mormon or Jew would consider non-believers to be Gentiles.

Henderson’s writing is evocative and grounds the reader in the world of Arizona and the southwest landscape of her protagonists. The smell of sage, the sounds of the birds, the clear air of the desert mountains. When I recently visited southern Utah, I got the tiniest taste for myself of the kind of environment Henderson so winningly wrote about.

Henderson’s People stories were resolutely focused on young protagonists.  Written today, The Pilgrimage: the Book of the People, which is the first of several volumes she wrote collecting her stories from The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction would probably be classified as YA, with Lea, its protagonist in a Canterbury Tales like fashion, serving as the young center of the six stories in the volume. The titles, ranging from “Ararat” to “Jordan” all reinforce the biblical and spiritual themes and concerns that run through the work. “Captivity”, the 5th story in the set, was nominated for the 1958 Nebula award.

Sadly, however, Henderson’s influence and importance today seems to be second and third hand. Alexander Key’s Escape to Witch Mountain (which subsequently has been made into several films) is so similar to Henderson’s story that for years, I thought it was a straight adaptation of Henderson’s work. The theme of young people, aliens, in a tight and small community with unusual powers, navigating a fraught landscape is one that was, too, echoed, in the TV series Roswell. Henderson would recognize Liz, Max, Isabel and the other characters, both human and alien, their challenges, hopes, and fears. Too, writers like Orson Scott Card, especially in his fantasy novels, clearly shows Henderson’s influence in his style.

However, if Henderson were alive and writing today, I’m certain she’d be hailed as being part of the movement into the space at the boundary between genre and literature. Henderson would be read and discussed along with writers like Rachel Swirsky, Theodora Goss and M. John Harrison. Regardless, she still should be read today, especially if you have any interest in reading in the borderlands between genre and non-genre fiction.

Happily, INGATHERING: THE COMPLETE PEOPLE STORIES OF ZENNA HENDERSON, NESFA Press’ collection of her entire set of People stories (which includes the aforementioned Pilgrimage sextet, and many more) remains in print. May it long remain so! (And if I might say, an ebook of these stories would be most welcome.)

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One Response to “Mining the Genre Asteroid: Zenna Henderson”

  1. TrishEM October 3, 2013 at 12:54 am #

    Thanks for writing about this! I read some of the stories years ago and also noticed the Witch Mountain similarity, but could never remember who had written the People stories.

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