Fri
Oct 9 2009 4:31pm

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.

25 comments
Beth Friedman
1. carbonel
I discovered these stories at just the right time, when I was in high school, and reread them obsessively, too. They were also a library triumph (I'd say "librarical" if I thought it were a word). I encountered two of the People stories in two different anthologies, and finding the second one made me think that maybe, just maybe, there were more, and if so, they might be collected in a book, and if they were, my high school library might even have a copy. So I went to the high school library card catalog, and sure enough, there was Pilgrimage: The Book of the People, and the copy was right where it belonged in the library, and right next to it was the collection Holding Wonder.

I don't think I found The People: No Different Flesh or The Anything Box until college, but those stories were an important part of my adolescence.

I have to disagree about all the stories being extremely sweet, though. Some of the non-People stories are outright creepy. There's the SF story told from the point of view of the teacher who doesn't like kids as they're trying to escape from the aliens. And "Stevie and the Dark" is horrific, as is the one about the man who dies of being crushed because the neighborhood boy has outgrown his special abilities. And "Walking Aunt Daid" is a mixed bag, but it gave me nightmares.
Teka Lynn
2. Teka Lynn
Zenna Henderson definitely could write quiet, bonechilling horror when she wanted to. There's not so much of it explicitly in the People stories, but there are moments so tragic in some of the stories that I can barely reread those parts. Overall, a wonderful series, with characters, both of the People and of Earth, who are profoundly human in ways good and bad.

I so wish Henderson had written a story about Timmy and Lytha meeting again. "Angels Unawares" (I think it is) is one of my all-time favorites.

I didn't read Henderson for the first time as a teen. I actually started reading them when I was nine or so, so I really identified with the kids in the school stories! I started with The Anything Box and went from there.

One thing that interests me as an adult is that I really didn't perceive the "modern" stories as set in a different decade from the one I was living in. They felt quite contemporary to me, just set in a rural location where things moved more slowly.
Clark Myers
3. ClarkEMyers
Agreed that the stories are treasured memories at least the first ones.

A reminder that the golden age of science fiction is childhood/young adulthood. I'd put the stories of The People with Shiras' In Hiding and Wellman's John of the silver string guitar as stories I delighted in on first exposure and was immensely pleased to find more of as the individual sequels appeared - but which somewhat disappointed when re-read in fix-ups and collections in later years.

I suspect a familiarity with the American tradition both immigrant (from someplace else) and migrant (within the country as Garland's generational movement from the rocks of Maine to the fields of California) first hand or as expounded in frex Hamlin Garland would change a reader's first reaction just as Enid Blyton or Arthur Ransome is likely a different writer for someone who knows the settings and backgrounds there - frex I think there might be class issues in the stories of England that would annoy some who grew up in the UK and be ignored by some who grew up in small town America. Similarly the schools in Henderson's America might be at least within family memories and certainly within the memory of any parent who might read the stories to a child. A far cry indeed from Tom Brown's Schooldays though.

Might be amusing to do a series on school life in America as seen by librarians and teachers to include Henderson and M.J. Engh.
Kenneth Sutton
4. kenneth
Oh, yes, I can relate to that feeling: "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..."
Jo Walton
5. bluejo
I agree that some of Henderson's non-People stories are really creepy, and memorable. They're not what I just read, though.
Tex Anne
6. TexAnne
The People live in the same part of my childhood as Aslan. And the "I *knew* it!" reaction...yes. I once managed, during a particularly awful bout of flu, to convince myself that the only reason I couldn't make dimes glow was that I didn't have any silver ones.

I've been reading _Ingathering_ too. Oddly, the only difference (besides the amazing visits of the Religion Fairy) is that instead of galloping headlong through the stories, I can only read one or two per day.
Teka Lynn
7. randwolf
Hmmm...did you know that Octavia Butler acknowledged Zenna Henderson as a major influence?
Teka Lynn
8. Teka Lynn
Re silver dimes: that historical detail was one of the very few which broke my sense of immersion in the story when I first read them.

People who can fly? Check.

ESP? No prob.

Braiding light? Sure.

Dimes made of *silver*? Oh, come ON!
Chris Meadows
9. Robotech_Master
Weirdly, I happened onto this blog post as I was checking my twitter in the public library, where I'd stopped in to renew the interlibrary loan copy of Ingathering I'd checked out after AlexLit told me I would probably like it.

Something that makes me a bit curious is the similarity between the People stories and the Witch Mountain stories (as told in the book and original Disney movie, not so much the recent Rock movie). It seems to me, upon reading these, that there's a remarkable degree of similarity in terms of backstory—Tony and Tia could practically be People themselves.

Wonder why that is?
Teka Lynn
10. Carbonel
Re: Robotech_Master: it could well be that Alexander Key (author of Escape to Witch Mountain) was influenced by Ms Henderson's stories--they were contemporaneous with many of her "People" stories coming into print via the SF&F magazines just prior to Key's children's books.
Teka Lynn
11. catbirdgirl
I love these books. I was reading them over and over during elementary through middle, and again into high school when I was tremendously lonely. I take them out every now and again. I used to have these incredible dreams of floating in the sky platting lightning and thunder....

anyway, I'm delighted that they are still remembered and being talked about.

I love the spirituality in the books, and the heart, and I never took them as particularly Christian.
Teka Lynn
12. Spearmint
Hm. I think I encountered them at a more cynical age than you, Jo (or perhaps I was just a more cynical teenager! XD) because when I read them in high school the Christianity and the- wholesomeness? Inability to criticize the People's society in any respect? I'm not sure quite how to describe it- already grated.

But there's a lyrical clarity to the stories that shines through all that. I think part of it may be that while it doesn't occur to Henderson to make her aliens collectively flawed, she's quite an incisive critic of her own species. There's so much pain, and stark recognition of pain, on the human end that the books don't come across as treacly. And she's very good at describing displacement and isolation, which may be part of the reason the books speak so strongly to teenagers.

Also I quite liked those bright, soft, highly washable bodysuits they had that sealed just by pressing the edges of the seam together, with no need for zippers. Artificial fleece decades before it was invented...
Teka Lynn
13. R. Emrys
I cannot imagine how I missed these at age 12. This was my favorite plot ever, and I would read it whenever I could get my hands on an iteration.
Teka Lynn
14. Penprickle
I was introduced to the People by my sci-fi mentor when I was a kid. I adored (and still do!) the whole set; as a Christian I find the People's background to be a refreshing take on faith and I always want to know more about their history. And I agree with the above poster who found them more or less contemporary; perhaps because the women, human and People both, seemed equals to the men.

Ingathering was published shortly before my mentor died. I had the great pleasure of telling her it existed and watching her light up with delight; fortunately, she had time to read it.
Teka Lynn
15. Rick York
What a joy to see Zenna Henderson re-published for a new generation.

I can't disagree with you Ms. Walton on the stories being about immigration. But, they were really about outsiders.

I started reading science fiction when I was 6, in 1950. I was the only one I knew who read it. SF was not as widely published as today. Having a librarian mother helped my access to it.

I must have been about 12 when I first encountered "The People". As a science fiction reader in the mid 50's, I was considerably out of the mainstream. Meeting the People for the first time helped me to learn that being different was not as bad and weird as I thought it was.

Zenna Henderson was a child psychiatrist for me. Her stories gave me great pleasure and encouragement.

Although at 65 they may not appeal to me in the same way, I look forward to re-reading them.
Teka Lynn
16. OtterB
I remember encountering these stories one at a time in anthologies and having the thrill of recognizing the "world" as one I'd read about before. I think I was in high school when I found them in book form. I have always had a sneaking fondness for the sweet & wholesome, as long as they aren't impossibly didactic. I reread these often.

One of the messages I took from these books was the sense (though not the term) of noblesse oblige - that if you are able to help, you have a responsibility to help, and that we are all part of a community.

Alas, these are among the old favorites that just don't interest my daughter. At the age at which I loved these, she was reading the Dresden Files.

And I've found, myself, on recent rereads that they don't hold my interest the way they used to. It feels like a loss of innocence, like no longer hearing the bell ring in The Polar Express.
Teka Lynn
17. Dr. Thanatos
Very interesting to read these posts. I too read these stories as a teen, and I found them to have a very Jewish sensibility .

For those of us who grew up in the 60's, whose parents and grandparents may have been lucky enough to have survived Hitler, and some of whom responded by concealing their identities out of fear that it could, in fact, happen here, I don't find christianity in these stories so much as an analogy of the Jewish experience.

But as Shakespeare once said after being brought to 1972 in a time machine and enrolling in a Shakespeare appreciation class, "It's amazing what people think I put in there!"
Jo Walton
18. bluejo
Dr Thanatos: Interesting. There are definitely parallels. But in one of the stories, "Father, Son and Holy Ghost" is specifically equated to "Presence, Name and Power" but for your interpretation, every time (I think) they quote the Bible it's Old Testament -- but in the King James translation.
Teka Lynn
19. Debbie Ridpath Ohi
Oh, I LOVED Zenna Henderson's PEOPLE stories. I wrote a gushy fan letter to Ms. Henderson when I was a teenager and she wrote (by hand) a letter back; I was utterly thrilled.

I'm going to have to get this collection. I never noticed any of the religious overtones when I read the books; I'll be curious to see if I react the same way as you upon rereading them.

Thanks for this post.

Debbie
Linden Wolfe
20. Lilith
Thank you so much for reminding me that these stories exist. And that I have "The People: No Different Flesh" and "The Anything Box" buried in a box somewhere in my spare room.

I guess I know what I'll be doing on my next day off.
Teka Lynn
21. David a1
I loved these stories growing up. In the past couple of years I've been thinking about them but couldn't remember the titles and Google was of no help even searching "the people". I tried again today and found this blog entry. I'm so glad to read that others loved the stories as well. I'll be getting a new copy to read again.
And.. Lilith, may I visit your spare room? It sounds as if it's full of treasure.
Teka Lynn
22. Shakatany
Her stories were wonderful and even the made-for-TV movie, "The People", reuniting William Shatner with Kim Darby had a certain charm.
Teka Lynn
23. Larry Kramer
I just finished reading "Ingathering" for the first time, having read most of the stories many years ago in other collections.

Most of her stories do portray the "People" in a very positive light, with a strong faith in God, even if under different names than used on Earth. However, there are several stories, especially "The Return", which show that the People were individually just as capable of self-centeredness and short sightedness as anyone else.

Thanks for the good review. I agree on most points, though as a matter of taste I do not find them to be either boring or overly sentimental. Rather they are a relaxing, pleasant read with characters that I can really enjoy geting a chance to "know" a bit better.
Teka Lynn
24. Carl Heinz
Her tales of The People are fondly remembered. Just wish Ingathering were available as an ebook. Ye olde arthritis makes holding it for prolonged periods rather difficult.
Teka Lynn
25. Almatolmen
I first read the stories in the SF&F magazine when I was in junior high in the mid-60s and later rediscovered the People in the paperback anthologies. Later, when I became a convinced Friend, I recalled them and thought that there were parallels. I.e., in Quaker-speak the Holy Spirit is sometimes referred to as the Presence Within. It's interesting to note that she was raised LDS, attended a Methodist meeting for a while, and is said to have worshipped with charismatics in her later years. She gets positive comments from folks of many religious backgrounds.

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