Lonely and special: Zenna Henderson’s Ingathering

Zenna Henderson wrote a certain kind of story, and she did it extremely well. All her stories are very sweet, and they’re almost all about teachers and children and being special. Ingathering collects all Henderson’s stories of the People, originally published as Pilgrimage and The People: No Different Flesh, plus two never-before-collected stories and a timeline. The People are human aliens who escape the destruction of their own planet and come to Earth. They have developed psionic abilities instead of technology, and they have racial memory. The ship that came to Earth burned up in the atmosphere and the People crashlanded in individual life pods, and the stories are about them living in groups or individually, being persecuted, hiding their abilities, finding each other. The stories are filled with deep religious sensibility, a profound sense of joy, and they’re the most comforting thing any lonely misunderstood teenager could possibly wish for. They’re about being special and finding other special people. This is one note, but it’s one note played incredibly well. If you didn’t like them you could say that they were cloying and insipid and repetitive—and goodness knows they’re definitely very old-fashioned. But I do like them, even now.

When I was a teenager, I must have read Pilgrimage fifty times. I owned a copy. But I literally stole The People: No Different Flesh from the library. I told them I had lost it, and paid for it. Years later when I found another copy I took it back and confessed, and years after that I bought them a copy of Ingathering. I did not give them my firstborn child, but when I read Ellen Klages “In the House of the Seven Librarians” it was that red copy of The People from Cardiff library that I thought of.

In the movie Galaxy Quest, there’s a kid who’s really really into the show, and the actor tells him that it’s just a show and he should get a life. Then, later, when the kid is trying to be mature and say that he appreciates that, the actor, on the spaceship, says “It’s all real,” and the kid responds instantly “I knew it!” This is exactly how I’d have reacted at that age with the People stories. I understood that they were just made up, that Henderson was a writer, that there weren’t any People, that nobody was going to find me and sort out my teenage angst and teach me to fly—and then again, on the other hand…

Ingathering is not a novel, and the two things published as novels that it contains aren’t novels either, they only make the slightest gesture towards even being fix-ups. They have frame stories about the People collecting individual stories, they have ordinary people listening to the stories, they do not have anything that could be described as plot. This is a collection of stories in the same setting with some overlapping characters.

At the time when these stories were written, if you wanted to write fantasy you had to disguise it as science fiction. The People are magical, but they’re science fictionally magic—they fly, but they came in a spaceship. These days they’d be outright urban fantasy, but they’d be less for that. The other world, the memories of their lost Home, the way they got lost landing all make them more interesting—as well as the possibility of them leaving again, which is raised but not really explored. They have some magical technology, but it’s their flying, shielding and telepathy that make them different. They could have been fantasy people, but they wouldn’t have been fantasy immigrants, and that’s one of the things that really works.

What the stories are about, beyond isolation, specialness and belonging, is immigration. Henderson wrote about these magical aliens as one more group of immigrants coming to the Western US. She’s most successful when she’s talking about the one-room schools and ghost towns and new settlements of Arizona—she’s writing science fiction and historical fiction at once. The setting may be less alien to some of you than it was to me when I was a teenager—I just accepted the whole thing as SF, mesas and canyons and the climate. There’s a story about clearing a field with a plough (plow) that works on its own, and the People pull stumps up whole. Needing to pull stumps up out of a field, having a field that had recently been forest, that hadn’t been a field for a thousand years, was just as much science fiction to me as the magic they used to do it.

Henderson doesn’t talk much about the people who were there before the immigrants came from Europe and space. I was paying attention to that on this read. When she does mention American Indians she’s usually positive about them, and there’s a positively intended if teeth-grittingly clichéd Mexican character in one of the stories. I think there’s a way in which there’s a myth about immigrants coming into territories that were empty and alien, and Henderson’s working within that myth but making her immigrants themselves alien, so that not only the land but the planet itself is alien to them. The People are white—all of them, and unexaminedly so.

They’re also Christian, or rather alienly Christian. They have the Presence, the Name and the Power, which are explicitly equated with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Their magic is done through the Power. There’s a mention at one point of them finding the Bible and discovering things they already knew put into pretty words. But there’s also an interesting theme in the stories of some people taking the Bible overly literally and persecuting the People—thou shalt not suffer a witch to live! They’re clearly intended to be true Christians, sharing without question, being good neighbours, and this persecution reflects narrow-minded bad Christianity that takes the letter and not the spirit. The People are definitely shown as being better than us, though Henderson goes out of her way to show that they don’t think of themselves that way. Incidentally, this whole thing entirely went over my head as a teenager.

It’s hard to put aside my history with these stories and try to look at them fresh. I think if I read these for the first time now I’d be charmed, and after a while, a little bored. There are some interesting things going on but no story, no resolution, no doing anything with anything. I don’t know if miserable teenagers mainline this kind of thing these days, or if they’d be likely to be able to find them if they wanted them. I think what I’d recommend for an adult reader new to Henderson would be to read “Gilead” and “Angels Unawares” and then consider how much more of it you can take. They’re beautifully written and very sweet—and after re-reading the whole lot I’m now desperate for something that’s smart and sassy.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

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