Ingathering: The Complete History of the People by Henderson, Zenna, 1952

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Zenna Henderson is not a name that comes up all that frequently in my conversations with others about SF. In fact, Henderson these days is more than a bit obscure. She penned a few dozen genre stories in the middle of the last century, one of which was made into a movie with William Shatner. Other than that, you can find her work anthologized in two short volumes of stories, or in this volume called Ingathering: The Complete People Stories. I find that a complete shame, because these stories, while not the best that the genre has to offer, really are relaxing, comforting and very fulfilling. Henderson has a very Simak-like quality to her writing, in that it is about caring for others and doing the right thing, and it is also written a mature, wise and very gentle voice. Four out of five stars.

Henderson was an Arizona resident who spent just about all her life in the desert as a teacher and occasional writer. The thing that makes her stand out (other than the high quality of her stories) is that she is the only female SF writer of that era who wrote under her own name. All the other female writers from before mid-century adopted male pseudonyms in an effort to fit into what was then perceived to be a male dominated market. A prime example of this is the phenomenal James Tiptree, Jr., who was actually a female CIA agent and psychologist named Alice Sheldon. Though Henderson did write different stories set in different universes, by far she is best remembered (if at all) for her People stories. The People were a group of extraterrestrials who crash landed on Earth in the late 19th Century in the American southwest. They are refugees from some unnamed cataclysm that destroyed their world, called Home. As their ship descended to Earth it burned up in the atmosphere, though a limited numbers of families and groups got out in escape pods. As a result there were in the 1950's, when the majority of the People stories take place, several very isolated communities of People all over Arizona, Mexico and New Mexico.

The People appear physically as humans do, but otherwise there are some big differences. The People have different "Persuasions" which allow them a wide variety of what we would call super-powers. Many of them can fly, some are healers, and others can read minds. There are empaths, those with control over climate, telekinetics, psychometrics, and those with incredibly heightened senses. They can make invisible force barriers at will, stop and redirect bullets, and kill or heal from dozens of miles away. It seems to me that the People could very easily take control of and dominate humanity if they wished, but for the fact that they are largely pacifists and agrarians who would prefer to be rooted to the Earth as closely as possible, and would just as well be left alone. They also have first person racial memories, and despite the fact that they are long lived, the later generations all remember the calamity that sent their ancestors into space. They seem to have no will to impose that chaos on any others. Their religion is rooted in the Christian tradition, how or why, I never learned, and they show a stereotypical value system of rural Americans during the fifties such as turn the other cheek, do unto others, etc.

Before reading this book I had only read a very few of the People stories. I have always liked Henderson, but after reading the collection I think I'm a big fan now. The stories are largely pastorals, in that the larger group is often seeking stragglers from the landing to reconnect with and rebuild their society. The big problem is that many of the People are considered outcasts by humans, and in some cases have been hunted and murdered. There is one particular shocking scene where the residents of one village try to show humans what they can do sometime in the 30's or so. That night they are hunted and killed like animals, with pregnant, elderly and infants killed and burned by the humans in a fit of fear-fueled hate. As a result, many of the People are not only hermits, but are stricken by mental disease and lust for suicide. The People of the largest village see it as their job to find the individuals and groups that are scattered and either open relations with them or bring them home to live with them and heal them, so that is what they do with their time. Many of the stories are about lost individuals who sometimes do not even know that they are 1/2 people,1/2 human who are found and brought into the fold. So at its heart, the collection of short stories is about what it is like to be an outcast, and to be among a large group of people who do not understand and want you, but also to find a metaphorical oasis of compassion and understanding, literally, in the middle of the desert.

Ingathering is essentially a reprint of both of Henderson's individual short story collections. The first group of stories is lightly influenced by the Old Testament, and depicts a group of people who come out of the desert in search of paradise. The themes in the second part of the book come from a wide variety of sources, but concentrate equally on the problems and blessings of families in a community that fears the larger population and sees the need to stay segregated. The one problem that I find with the stories is that it seems like the stories are all just different takes on the same basic premise: Lost girl or boy is hated and ostracized by humans for reasons they cannot fathom, who wanders into the desert considering suicide, who is then picked up before the deed can be done and who is then shown what family and deeply rooted communities are really like. Granted that the stories are all similar, as one of the common themes is identification and reunification with other People, but Henderson was a pretty adept writer and often took stories in different directions when you least expected her to do so. One element of her writing style that still sticks with me now, five or so weeks after finishing the book, is how visual her imagery was. I literally felt like I was watching a movie at times. Here is an example from a story called Pottage. This is the story of a People teacher from the main town of Cougar Canyon who has cajoled an assignment in a desolate, end-of-the-road town called Bendo. The residents of Cougar Canyon believe that other People live in Bendo, but are so repressed by fear of humans that they have given up on their heritage. The teacher is sent to investigate the children. She slowly gets the children to trust her, then urges them to stretch their imaginations and use their powers. One day, after many many failures, she has a breakthrough which fills her with fearful joy. Where the quote starts the teacher has just gotten the children to pass a dictionary back and forth using telekinesis only:

Everyone signed and looked at me expectantly.

"Miriam?" She clasped her hands convulsively. "You come to me," I said, feeling a chill creep across my stiff shoulders. "Lift to me, Miriam."

Without taking her eyes from me she sipped out of her seat and stood in the aisle. Her skirts swayed a little as her feet lifted from the floor. Slowly at first and then more quickly she came to me, soundlessly, through the air, until in a little flurried rush her arms went around me and she gasped into my shoulder. I put her aside, trembling. I groped for my handkerchief. I said shakily, "Miriam, help the rest. I'll be back in a minute."

And I stumbled into the room next door. Huddled down in the dust and debris of the catchall storeroom it had become, I screamed soundlessly into my muffling hands. And screamed and screamed! Because after all - after all!

And then suddenly, with a surge of panic, I heard a sound - the sound of footsteps, many footsteps, approaching the schoolhouse. I jumped for the door and wrenched it open just in time to see the outside door open There was Mr. Diemus and Esther and Esther's father, Mr. Jonso.

In one of those flashes so clear it engraves your mind in a split second, I saw my whole classroom.

Joel and Matt were chinning themselves on nonexistent bars, their heads brushing the high ceiling as they grunted upward. Abie was swinging in a swing that wasn't there, arcing across the corner of the room, just missing the stovepipe from the old stove, as he chanted, "Up in a swing, up in a swing!" This wasn't the first time they had tried their wings! Miriam was kneeling in a circle with the other girls and they were all coaxing their books to hover unsupported above the door, while Jimmy vroomm-vroomed two paper jets through intricate maneuvers in and out the row of desks.

There really are not many stories that I find leave me with the same feeling that these do. There is something so restful and peaceful about them. Henderson is a master of emotional manipulation, tugging the reader in virtually every story across the spectrum, but usually leaving one in a good place. The only real criticism that I have of the volume that I read, the NESFA volume, is that too many stories are collected under one poor binding. This should have been two volumes. But, as usual, don't let that stop you!

Copyright 2008, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 4 star(s)


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