Zenna Henderson 1917-1983
American short story writer.
Henderson is best known for her series of imaginative tales about a race of aliens, known as the People, who settled on Earth late in the nineteenth century. Although they are commonly classified as science fiction stories, Henderson's works are, by her own admission, drawn from events in her own life: "All the stories," she stated, "are based on students I have taught, places I've known, experiences I've had." Moreover, despite featuring characters who are aliens, the stories are deeply concerned with human morality and spirituality, and with "all the wonderful, slow miracles of life, growth, and being."
Henderson was born September 1, 1917, in Tucson, the second of five children of Louis and Emily Chlarson. Her family was deeply religious, which had a significant impact on her later writing. She was raised in the Mormon faith but converted to Methodism as an adult. Henderson graduated from Phoenix Union High School in Phoenix and received her bachelor's degree from Arizona Teachers College (now Arizona State University) in 1940; she received her master's degree from the same institution fourteen years later. Henderson began writing in the 1940s and had her first stories published late in that decade. Henderson was a teacher throughout her adult life. During World War II she taught at the Japanese American Relocation Camp in Rivers, Arizona; from 1956 to 1958 she taught at a U.S. Air Force base in France; and from 1958 to 1959 she taught at a tuberculosis hospital in Connecticut. Most of her career, however, was spent as a grade school teacher in Eloy, Arizona. Henderson died on May 11, 1983.
Henderson published four collections of short stories; all the pieces had previously appeared in various magazines and journals. The stories in each of the volumes Pilgrimage: The Book of the People and The People: No Different Flesh were "novelized": modified and adapted to form a unified work. These books concern the People, a race of aliens—indistinguishable from humans except for their exceptional psychic powers—who settle on Earth in the late nineteenth century. The stories explore the relationship between humans and the aliens, as the People try to adapt to their new surroundings and the frequent hostility of humans (called Outsiders by the People), while preserving their unique cultural identity. Henderson, employing motifs and themes drawn from the Bible, suffuses the stories with a spirituality and a faith in humanity's ability to overcome prejudice and intolerance.
The fundamental goodness of many of the characters in Henderson's stories and the overriding spirituality of the tales have led some critics to call them sentimental and saccharine. Other critics, however, have found Henderson's work more complex than such labels imply. Fred Erisman, for example, has admired Henderson's treatment of universal human concerns: "Zenna Henderson's People, alien though they are and alien though they remain," he declares, "are quintessentially human in their quest for identity, and thereby provide a means for the reader to recognize and articulate his or her own yearnings, doubts, and fears." Elsewhere, Erisman has praised Henderson's employment of the myth of the American frontier, arguing that her application of the myth to the People leads "not to a new definition of what constitutes an American, but, rather, of what constitutes a human." Viewing one Henderson story from a feminist perspective, Farah Mendelson has observed an insightful analysis of gender and power roles all the more remarkable for having been written before the advent of feminism.
SOURCE: Interview with Zenna Henderson, in Speaking of Science Fiction: The Paul Walker Interviews, by Paul Walker, Luna Press, 1978, pp. 271-80.
[In the conversation below, which was first published in 1974, Henderson recounts her life and career, and discusses her views on the genre of science fiction.]
What was the origin of the "People" stories? Why have you gone on writing them?
The "People" stories originated with "Ararat." When I first started, I planned a story about some people who crossed the Atlantic by "lifting" from their home in Transylvania—with all the concomitant stuff that goes with Transylvania. But, as usual, I found that I can't write about unpleasant people, so I changed it to interstellar refugees, and the "People" emerged.
I went on writing them because I liked them. And at a time when I was experiencing considerable unhappiness in my personal life, the stories helped occupy my thoughts.
Also the fan response was unanimously pro, and even the crank letters were mostly happy. I will probably write more of them. (You do know that each story was originally a separate novelette, don't you?)
You said you conceived each of the "People" stories as a separate novelette, but have you kept a detailed record of the characters, the events, history, etc. ? You seem to have filled out the middle of the story, but have you considered an end to it?
No, I haven't compiled a history of the "People" but, this summer, a fan of mine sent me her compilation of people, ages, relationships, etc. that she used as a college paper—and I haven't even had time to read it yet! I've not considered an end. The series may expire because my interest might get engaged in other areas. As of now, I hope to write more of them.
There are certain incidents (teacher-pupil confrontation, problems of communication, etc.), themes such as loneliness, cultural isolation, alienation, the "miraculous" element in everyday life, that recur in your "People" and other stories. How autobiographical is your work?
The "People" aren't autobiographical. All of the stories are based on students I have taught, places I've known, experiences I've had, but the stories are not of any specific anything in my life. The people, places, and events are syntheses of dozens of people, places, and events plus imagination and alteration to fit the needs of the specific stories.
The miraculous in daily life I write about because I am so conscious of it all the time. Miracles go on all the time. Oh, not the wave-a-wand, boi-oi-oing! type of miracles, but all the wonderful, slow miracles of life, growth, and being.
There does seem to be a running theme in the stories: that of cultural isolation; of a people cut off from the mainstream of the world, fearful of cultural confrontation, of misunderstanding, if not physical harm. What about this theme? And could it possibly relate to your own experiences with the Indian and Mexican children in Arizona?
Never came across it among the kids. It's only the educated adults that have coined the expression. How much Spanish culture do you think a six-year old has who was born in Eloy, and whose parents were, too? There is economic isolation when you can't afford something, but hardly anyone feels culturally isolated. The isolation I write about, and that apparently finds an answering "me, too!" from my readers, is the isolation of person from person. It's the human state. As Ogden Nash said in one of his poems—a person is never so lonely as when he tries to pretend he isn't. Every one is lonely. Each of us is an island in the last analysis. It is our reaction to this isolation that determines the type of person we are.
A multiple question. Most of your stories concern children—especially male children. And the stories in your collection, The Anything Box, all seem to have a common theme, best expressed in the story, "Turn the Page": "Believe again! You have forgotten how to believe in anything beyond your chosen treadmill. You have grown out of the fairy tale age, you say. But what have you grown into? . . . With your hopeless, scalding tears at night, and your dry-eyed misery when you waken. Do you like it?"
Faith. The capacity for wonder, imagination, mystery, enchantment. The supreme tragedy of our growing up is our loss of the capacity for these things. And that loss results in a hollowness of being. But fortunately we have children to revive, to re-educate, us in them.
Yes, most of my stories concern children, but I quarrel with your "especially male children." I haven't conducted a head count but I'd be willing to bet that it's about six of one and a half-dozen of the other. Almost consciously I think "boy, last time—better be a girl this time."
The thing to believe in is the ultimate triumph of Good. And that God is a personal God who knows each one of us as we can't know ourselves; who has given us life for a unique function that no one else can ever perform; that we are responsible for our every action, thought, and word; and we will be held personally accountable for them when we go through Death into the presence of God. That we are never alone, never forsaken, never beyond God's love and compassion—and always as important as if we were the only mortal ever created.
Last of sermon?
Well, if you feel you are far away from God, be advised—He isn't the one who moved!
I think the feeling of futility, of emptiness, of aloneness begins to show itself in juvenile delinquency, and ends in a society that suffers as ours does now.
The major criticism of your work is that it is "sentimental." You have been accused of being a "woman's writer." How do you feel about that?
A writer is a writer is a writer. That a woman writer sounds like a woman writer is no great thing. A man writer sounds like a man writer! So? Is either of them a thing to point at either in praise or criticism? I don't consider myself "sentimental." Maybe I'm "sympathetic." I know I'm empathetic. To me a good story is a good story whether it's from a male or female. I truly don't think there is a man sound or a woman sound to a story.
Who are you?
I'm two me's. One me is just me—name, address, height, weight, place of birth. The other me is the writer. Consequently the first me has all the statistics; the writer has none. That way I can accept and enjoy the pleasant letters I get about my stories, be pleased that the writing has had the success it has had; although the business of earning a living often gets in the way of it so the writing has to go into abeyance until time permits. Still, the duality makes me very shy of meeting people who "want to meet" me. They meet the...
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SOURCE: "Zenna Henderson's 'People' and the Quest for Self-Identity," in Extrapolation, Vol. 27, No. 4, Winter, 1986, pp. 320-25.
[In the following essay, Erisman declares that in her stories about the People, Henderson "takes one of the most familiar elements of science fiction, the alien encounter, and one of the most familiar elements of all literature, the quest, and makes a profoundly human document, a body of fiction that portrays a people's achieving identity."]
Few science fiction series have had the compelling appeal of Zenna Henderson's narratives of "The People." In two books and a handful of uncollected short stories published between 1952 and 1980,...
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SOURCE: "Gender, Power, and Conflict Resolution: Subcommittee' by Zenna Henderson," in Extrapolation, Vol. 35, No. 2, Summer, 1994, pp. 120-29.
[In the essay below, Mendlesohn examines gender roles and power structures in "Subcommittee," placing the story in the context of the time it was written, before the rise of feminism.]
Studies of gender and science fiction have remained rare despite the recent boom in gender studies. The principal reason for this is that gender remains for many a euphemism for "women." Women are gendered; men are not. The directions feminist science fiction criticism has taken have mitigated against the exploration of gender, either as an issue...
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SOURCE: "Zenna Henderson and the Not-So-Final Frontier." Western American Literature, Vol. XXX, No. 3, November, 1995, pp. 275-85.
[In the following essay, Erisman analyzes Henderson's use of the myth of the American frontier in her stories of the People. Henderson applies the concept of frontier broadly, the critic contends: "She is concerned with the timeless frontier that occurs whenever an individual or a people confronts a challenge."]
The American frontier experience has long been linked with space travel and interplanetary colonization. From at least the era of Hugo Gernsback and Edgar Rice Burroughs, the vocabulary and imagery of the frontier West have been...
(The entire section is 3583 words.)