Zenna Henderson’s 1995 single-author collection, Ingathering: The Complete People Stories, assembles, I think for the first time, all of her stories about the People. The People are aliens forced to flee the only Home they knew when it decided to pull a Krypton. Although I’ve owned this volume for twenty years (when did 1995 get to be so twenty years ago?) I’ve never actually read it or any Henderson at all1, so this was a welcome chance to sample the works of a noteworthy author hitherto unfamiliar to me.
Following the destruction of the planet Home, one group of People found the Earth in the late 19th century. While many were lost trying to land their rudimentary spacecraft on Earth (specifically, the American Southwest), enough of them survived to ensure the continuation of the People. Some of the survivors, like the ones living in Cougar Canyon, fell to Earth in groups and had company on this new, alien Earth. Others, less lucky, found themselves alone in crowds of strange, dangerous humans.
Although People are human enough that they can interbreed with us, there are two significant (and probably related) differences between them and us: the first is that where humans developed technology, the People developed psi powers, or as they call them, Gifts. No one Person has all the Gifts but they generally have at least one. The other main difference is that their god, who is an awful lot like the various Christian gods, is a Presence in their lives and not merely a poorly supported hypothesis.
The first half of this book is framed by a story in which a depressed woman named Lea is saved from attempted suicide by an odd woman named Karen. Karen is one of the People. Not having leaped to her death from a bridge doesn’t leave Lea any less depressed, so the community of People to which Karen belongs tries to help Lea put her troubles in perspective by telling her stories from the early years of the People on Earth.
(Table of contents lifted from ISFDB, although I’ve edited it some)
Ararat • (1952) • novelette
Karen tells the story of a crisis triggered by the fact that People and humans are similar enough that they can fall in love with each other. Case in point: Jemmy and Valency, the new teacher at Cougar Canyon’s rustic school. The issue of how to react to human-People relationships is resolved in an unexpected way.
In Karen and Lea’s time, the People have few qualms about revealing themselves to humans. But in the early days, the People believed for good reason that to be seen as different was to court death.
Gilead • (1954) • novelette
Peter’s mother was one of the People unfortunate enough to be marooned alone among humans. While she found love with a human, she was always conscious of the dangers that would follow if her children’s Gifts ever became public. When Peter’s parents die, he and his sister are left alone, forever on guard against exposure. They could seek out other People but as mixed-race children, they are afraid of rejection. Can they be accepted in either community or must they remain forever outside?
Inasmuch as Peter is part of the group of People who are telling Lea his story, I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say “generally, the People err on the side of charity.”
Pottage • (1955) • novelette
Cougar Canyon isn’t the only community of People. There’s also Bendo (although neither Bendo nor Cougar Canyon is aware of the other). Unfortunately, Bendo’s People were horribly traumatized by their experiences on Earth and they have lost their way. Luckily for them, the new teacher in town has some ideas about how to rehabilitate the town.
Wilderness • (1957) • novelette
A human loner becomes entangled with two orphaned People children, revealing in the process that some humans are very much like the People.
Captivity • (1958) • novella
A teacher’s efforts to steer Clement, a poorly behaved orphan (a Person alone with humans, which makes it worse), onto better paths are threatened by Clement’s mean, self-centered foster-mother.
Some people call Henderson sentimental, but it’s clear from this story that she had a keen sense of how much and in what ways small towns could suck. Once the townsfolk decide Clement is just a bad seed, everything he does is used to justify seeing him as a bad kid.
Jordan • (1959) • novelette
When Home exploded, ships fled from it in all directions. The People in most of these stories fell on the stony ground of Earth, but another ship fell on the good soil of New Home. Having created a new home much like the old Home, the People of New Home search for their lost kin across the stars. Contact poses a difficult question for the People of Earth: stay on Earth or go to New Home? Contact also brings painful culture shock, as the hardships of Earth have transformed the People who live there.
Or to put it a different way, the People of Cougar Canyon are as shocking to the People of New Home as the sad relics in Bendo were to the People in Cougar Canyon.
No Different Flesh • (1965) • novelette
Earth people help a People child out of basic goodness and the People help the humans back.
This might be the People story, containing all the essential elements of a People story.
Deluge • (1963) • novelette
The last days of Home. The People are fortunate enough to have a direct link to their god (and to the Afterlife, which gives them an interesting perspective on death). Unfortunately, the Presence will give them a heads-up about Home’s impending doom. but It will not save the People or their world. Survival means taking up the machines the People rejected in the past, which is a monumental decision.
There’s a definite sense in these stories that machine civilization of the sort Home apparently had at one time and Earth currently has is undesirable. It might be why People can sense the Presence and humans generally cannot.
Angels Unawares • (1966) • novelette
As this story shows, the People aren’t being xenophobic when they take care to conceal their differences from the humans around them; it’s simple prudence based on unpleasant experience. A 19th century human couple on their way to a new home find the aftermath of a horrible slaughter, a burned out homestead with the charred corpses of a family of People whose fanatical neighbors reacted badly to the revelation of the People’s Gifts. There is only one survivor, a young girl. Taking her in will make the couple a target for a fanatic who is afraid showing mercy to the girl will consign the fanatic to hell.
Henderson seems to have been very devout but it didn’t give her illusions that her fellow Christians were necessary nice people or even particularly sane.
Troubling of the Water • (1966) • novelette
A blind People boy, isolated from the People, stumbles across a family of pioneers trying to make a living on a particularly hostile patch of land.
Return • (1961) • novelette
Thann and Debbie, husband and wife, return from New Home to Earth. They are unaware that, while they were gone, the river running through Cougar Canyon was dammed and the canyon is now a lake. Thann is killed during the landing and pregnant Debbie is left marooned among Outsiders whom she despises.
The People may on average be better than humans but they aren’t flawless. Debbie in particular lacks much sense of charity.
Shadow on the Moon • (1962) • novelette
The People help a grieving old man with his hopeless ambition to complete his dead son’s scheme to travel to Earth’s Moon.
Think of this as Heinlein’s “Requiem” told as a People story. One of the differences between the Heinlein story and the Henderson is that in the Henderson, the poor old coot lost his family through misfortune, whereas D. D. Harriman never really had any family, because he was more unlovable than Charles Foster Kane.
Tell Us a Story • (1980) • novella
A human family of pioneers becomes increasingly aware of how odd their new neighbors are. The family patriarch concludes that satanic forces could be at work, and he is the sort of man who would let his own son die as a matter of principle.
That Boy • (1971) • novelette
A community of religious pioneers belatedly discovers that they’ve picked a Bad Place to settle down; it’s the sort of land where people will just naturally languish into illness and death. The pioneers lack the knowledge to understand what’s wrong with their new home. Luckily for the pioneers, their neighbors are People, who are even more strangers in a strange land than the pioneers. The People are not the kind of people who let neighbors die because of a bad decision made in ignorance.
Michal Without • (1995) • novelette
Bedridden patients find themselves attended by a very odd young girl, not only odder than they know, but odder than they can know.
The Indelible Kind • (1968) • novelette
A human teacher discovers that her student’s claim that there is a cosmonaut trapped in orbit is not just some childish delusion, but actual fact. She then gets dragged into the People’s covert mission to rescue the unfortunate cosmonaut before he dies up in space, which just goes to show primary school teachers need to be prepared for pretty much anything.
Katie-Mary’s Trip • (1975) • short story
A hippie chick with what seems to be OCD helps one of the People find their way home again. The People then take steps to make sure she cannot do that again.
As the decades roll by, the People get increasingly casual about letting chosen humans know about them, either because they trust the humans or because they believe that there will be no untoward consequences to the revelation. The People aren’t mean to Katie-Mary but they are pretty casual about fiddling with her brain in the name of the greater good, theirs and Katie-Mary’s.
The People Series • (1980) • essay
A very short piece by Henderson giving an account of herself and of the genesis of the People stories.
Chronology of the People Stories • (1995) • essay by Mark L. Olson and Priscilla Olson
Exactly what it says.
Also included but not discussed is a short introduction by Priscilla Olson.
Almost all of Henderson’s short work came out between the early 1950s and early 1970s. Discussions of her work often mention that she was one of the few female authors active in speculative fiction in the early years. She was a contemporary of authors like Merrill, Norton, and MacLean. Writing was a sideline for her — very few people could make a living from writing science fiction — and her primary occupation was schoolteacher, something she drew on for a number of these stories.
Henderson was born into the Church of the Latter Day Saints, although she later drifted away from it following her marriage2. I wonder to what degree the world-building in this — in particular the fact that even through the People come from another world, they are humans (specifically white-skinned humans), not aliens who merely happen to look human — is taken from or at least influenced by Mormon theology.
There’s a running theme in her stories, of the precariousness of nonconformity. Inflexible conformists are common enough and dangerous enough that anyone who happens to be different should probably keep that fact to themselves until they make sure exposure doesn’t risk expulsion or worse. Her depiction of the price people might be willing to or be forced to pay to remain a part of their communities may reflect her early years as a Mormon. The Mormon (LDS) community is known for its close social ties3.
People toss around terms like “sentimental” and assert that she “out-Simaked Simak”but I think that’s a dismissive way of ignoring that while she clearly preferred happy endings, getting to them4 involves a lot of effort, tears, and bloodshed along the way. Henderson wasn’t a Pollyanna; when she thought that the story needed dark elements, she could go as dark as necessary.
I believe Ingathering is still in print and I would recommend buying it — but with one caveat. I always read books cover to cover in one sitting and this isn’t a book that benefits from that approach. Better to read one or two of the stories, then wait a while before reading the next.
1: And I just discovered that for decades I have been for some reason convinced that Escape to Witch Mountain was a People story, when in fact it’s by Alexander H. Key. I learn so much from these reviews, not least of which is how much of what I think I know is flat-out wrong.
2: She married a non-Mormon and at some point became a Methodist. The Mormon Literature & Creative Arts database entry for Henderson links her marriage with her exit from the Church of the Latter Day Saints.
3. Remaining a member of the Church of the Latter Day Saints may require an unpleasant conformity, but leaving the Church of the Latter Day Saints, willingly or otherwise, can exact a price in ostracism.
4: Not to mention that the stories in this book are all told by survivors or children and friends of survivors. The events of “Angel Unawares,” for example, only had to have gone a little more badly for there to have been no survivors at all. In cases where there were no survivors, nobody would ever have learned what happened to that particular group of People.