Zenna Henderson Critical Essays


(Short Story Criticism)

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."

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.