By Bud Webster
There was a time, not so far back that it's slipped from living memory, when sentiment was accepted as a legitimate tone for a writer to use. To be sure, it was frequently abused, especially in the pulps, but in the hands of a skilled and sincere writer it could be — and often was — what elevated an otherwise common idea (robots and humans) to the level of near-genius ("Helen O'Loy," by Lester del Rey).
This is not, apparently, the case today. Instead of sentiment, all too often, we have irony. Instead of an examination of a character's emotions, we're given glib, therapy-inspired excuses for why they do what they do. Why should a writer work hard to create a memorable character when they can simply use a clip-artifact with a funny hat instead?
Of course, this is not the case across the board, or I would have given up reading for pleasure long ago, but it's true enough often enough to be dismaying. I can't help but feel that this trend towards thinly-veiled mocking of sincerity shows contempt for both the reader and the subject matter, and that is an offense no writer should be guilty of.
Yes, I realize that this makes me sound like a cranky old fart bitching about kids today, and the music they listen to being a bunch of noise, but deal with it. I have to. And I happen to like noisy music, myself, not like those old farts over there.
And I like sentimental fiction, unashamedly and unabashedly, as long as it doesn't descend into gratuitous and blatant button-pushing. Clifford Simak's Way Station and Goblin Reservation are just fine; PSAs by for-profit "charities" featuring dewy-eyed kids scrabbling in trash heaps ain't.
Zenna Chlarson Henderson (1917-1983) may have pushed the odd button or two, but she certainly didn't whang on them like a lab-rat jonesing for kibble. She tweaked them gently to remind us that they were there for a reason, then held those reasons up for us to marvel at.
Henderson was a school teacher all her life, but that wasn't her goal; it was just the only track she could get at her local college. Nevertheless, the daily experience of dealing with perhaps the strangest animals on the face of the Earth — children, in all their myriad and steadfast wonder — gave her an insight into humanity which was absolutely necessary for her avocation: writing with empathy and compassion about aliens among us.
During World War II, she taught children at the Japanese-American internment camp in Sacaton, Arizona for a year; it's not a stretch to consider that this, as much as almost anything else in her life, enabled her to address the role of the Stranger in a Strange Land.
But there's something else that might have had at least as much an impact: Henderson was born and raised in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Being a Mormon in Arizona wasn't easy; as recently as 1953, Arizona police arrested leaders of the Church. Currently, the LDS is listed by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group because they consider some Church dogma to be racist and sexist.
Whatever the realities, Henderson almost certainly suffered prejudice at the hands of non-Mormons to one degree or another. Taken with her experiences at Sacaton, is there any wonder that this theme informs most — if not all — of her work?
That work began with the sale of her first story, "Come On, Wagon!" to F&SF in 1951. Not a story of "The People," it nevertheless tells of a child with odd mental powers who is forbidden to use them by his uncle, with tragic results.
Many of Henderson's stories involve tragedy of one sort or another. In fact, her People stories are founded on their calamitous shipwreck on Earth, with each story illuminating the aliens' emotional and physical responses to their disaster within the context of trying to hide amongst us.
But not false tragedy, or mere bathos — in that first story, little Thaddeus loses his psi ability as a result of his uncle's proscription, and someone dies as a result. If Henderson were a lesser writer, this story would resemble nothing more than a fantasy-oriented version of the death of Little Nell; that it doesn't can be explained by two facts: first, that Henderson began writing from an early age and worked a lot of the clichés out of her system. As she said in a self-penned author's bio in the August, 1953 issue of William Hamling's Imagination:
"I wrote poetry and 'plays' from the fourth grade on up, but it wasn't until about four years ago that I really started writing fiction in earnest."
The other fact is...well, not to put too fine an edge on it, the editors requested it. In a letter dated 3 December 1950, J. Francis McComas said, in part:
"...we don't think you have fully developed your situation. We'd like to offer the following suggestions for revision, with the hope you'll see fit to work on them and let us see what happens. If you can do a satisfactory rewrite, we'll want the story."
She could, and they did. Their suggestions, although perhaps implied in the original story, nevertheless turned it from a pretty good yarn into one of the most affecting first stories I've ever read.
Not far behind "Come On, Wagon!" was the first of the stories she would become best known for, her other life's work, if you will: "Ararat." Almost all of the People stories have biblical titles, very much in keeping with the spirituality that informs her entire body of work. And, indeed, the People were visited with cataclysms of biblical proportions: fleeing a doomed planet, human-like aliens with odd psi powers crash on Earth and are scattered. The stories in the series detail the difficulties the People have attempting to find each other while staying hidden from the rest of the world.
Like all of Henderson's work, the People stories are funny, moving, wistful, and in many places, bitter. There is no rest for the People, no safety except in isolation and secrecy. That the youngest of the People, those who don't remember their home, rebel against this isolation is inevitable; that this creates conflict and tension within their closed community makes for terrific story-telling.
But Zenna Henderson was about more than just this one series, however wonderful it might be (and it is, in every sense of the word). Her insights into the alien world of children are, on the surface, engaging. It's difficult not to like the likeable kids in her stories, and even the unlikable ones seem to have at least a few redeeming qualities.
It's down deep in the stories, though, that the real value is found. Her children may seem innocent and naïve, but some of them harbor dark secrets. In "The Anything Box," a young girl finds solace and relief from her dreadful life (her father is a thief) in what her teacher at first believes to be vivid imagination. Cupping her hands around an invisible box, the girl can see whatever she wants most to see. Her real life becomes so unbearable, though, that she tries (unsuccessfully) to put herself into that imaginary world and is only saved when her teacher realizes what's going on and quite literally pulls her back.
In a very real way, "The Anything Box" can be seen as Henderson's attempt to portray autism. Any school teacher who puts in any time at all sees children who suffer from one degree of autism or another, and Henderson's experiences at the Japanese internment camp must have shown her children — and even adults — lost inside themselves trying to escape the harsh reality of their ruined lives.
There's more than a little bitterness, too, in the seldom-reprinted "The Grunder." Henderson wisely left children out of this story about a man's pathological — and unwarranted — jealousy over what he imagines are his wife's infidelities. On a camping trip intended to save their marriage, he is confronted with yet one more possibility that she's cheating, this time with two men who dropped by the campsite and, being the kind of fictional characters who do this sort of thing, tease him about being alone with his wife. He seems to deal with it well enough, encouraging his wife to relax, but then his compulsion gets the better of him. Before he can hurt her, he stumbles away into the rainy night and, sick of his own paranoia and willing to do anything to do away with it, seeks and finds the legendary grunder (a fish that swims in the earth). Using the formula given him earlier in the story by a grizzled local, he catches the earth-fish and uses it to literally rip the sickness out of himself.
There's both myth and madness in the resolution of this one, and if the characters here don't seem quite as clear-cut as their young counterparts in other stories, well, Henderson just knew kids better.
Myth and madness feature in "Walking Aunt Daid," one of the few truly creepy stories Henderson wrote. Even here, though, there's sweetness of a sort. The story involves a family curse/tradition, and the coming of age of the viewpoint character who must take his turn to walk Aunt Daid. What happens to them — what has happened many times, in fact — is both wonderful and terrible. The pair's moonlit journey changes them both, one of them forever, and the knowledge that it must happen again and again is another example of Henderson's surprising tinge of bitterness.
Zenna Henderson's output was small, comparatively speaking — three collections and a fix-up novel during her lifetime — but each story, each vignette, is a polished gem that outshines the work of lesser, more prolific writers. All four books were published in hardcover: three by Doubleday and one by the UK SF giant Gollancz. The press runs, however, were even more miniscule than was usually the case with Doubleday's SF line; I wouldn't be at all surprised to learn that there were only a few hundred of them ever bound, although the later Avon paperbacks were cranked out in huge numbers and, with the exception of The Anything Box, are quite common even today. For whatever reason, I see a dozen or more copies of the other Avon books for every single copy of Box, and I try and scarf them up whenever I can.
As should all of you out there reading this. Trust me, I wouldn't waste my time or yours with hacks or those numberless writers who've been forgotten for good reason. If I bring 'em up here, it's because I think they're in danger of fading from the SF Consciousness forever, and it's my job to do what I can to prevent that.
The NESFA collection mentioned below contains all the People stories, including one previously unpublished story, and belongs on the shelf of every serious SF reader. There's no space opera here, no battles, robots, blasters, or BEMs. It's not military in the least, there are no magic rings or dragons. But there is lyricism, and gentility, and emotion, and yes, not a little sentimentality. Zenna Henderson's kids may not wave wands and make potions, but they can grab a handful of sunlight and platt twishers with the best of them.
The People, and all the rest of her characters, children
and adults alike, are worthy of your attention and affection. I sez, "Get
Pilgrimage: The Book of
Doubleday 1961, Avon 1964
The Anything Box
Doubleday 1965, Avon 1969
The People: No Different Flesh
Gollancz 1966, Avon 1968
Doubleday 1971 (contains 12 original stories), Avon 1972
Ingathering: The Complete People Stories
NESFA Press 1995 (contains one original story)
"Come On, Wagon!" ( F&SF, December 1951)
"The Dark Came Out to Play..." ( Imagination, May 1952)
"Ararat" ( F&SF, October 1952)
"Loo Ree" ( F&SF, February 1953)
"The Grunder" ( Imagination, June 1953)
"The Substitute" ( Imagination, August 1953)
"Hush!" ( Beyond, November 1953)
"Food to All Flesh" ( F&SF, December 1953)
"Gilead" ( F&SF, August 1954)
"You Know What, Teacher?" ( Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, September 1954)
"Walking Aunt Daid" ( F&SF, July 1955)
"Pottage" ( F&SF, September 1955)
"The Anything Box" ( F&SF, October 1956)
"Wilderness" ( F&SF, January 1957)
"The Last Step" ( F&SF, February 1957)
"Turn the Page" ( F&SF, May 1957)
"Captivity" ( F&SF, June 1958)
"Jordan" ( F&SF, March 1959)
"And a Little Child..." ( F&SF, October 1959)
"Something Bright" ( Galaxy, February 1960)
"The Closest School" ( Fantastic, April 1960)
"Things" ( F&SF, July 1960)
"Return" ( F&SF, March 1961)
"Shadow on the Moon" ( F&SF, March 1962)
"Subcommittee" ( F&SF, July 1962)
"Deluge" ( F&SF, October 1963)
"No Different Flesh" ( F&SF, May 1965)
"The Effectives" ( Worlds of Tomorrow, May 1965)
"Angels Unawares" ( F&SF, May 1966)
"Troubling of the Water" ( F&SF, September 1966)
"The Indelible Kind" ( F&SF, December 1968)
"J-Line to Nowhere" ( F&SF, September 1969)
"The Believing Child" ( F&SF, June 1970)
"Through a Glass" - Darkly ( F&SF, October 1970)
"That Boy" ( F&SF, November 1971)
"As Simple as That" ( Holding Wonder, Doubleday 1971)
"Three-Cornered and Secure" ( Holding Wonder, Doubleday 1971)
"The Taste of Aunt Sophronia" ( Holding Wonder, Doubleday 1971)
"Swept and Garnished" ( Holding Wonder, Doubleday 1971)
"One of Them" ( Holding Wonder Doubleday 1971)
"Sharing Time" ( Holding Wonder, Doubleday 1971)
"Ad Astra" ( Holding Wonder, Doubleday 1971)
"Incident After" ( Holding Wonder, Doubleday 1971)
"The Walls" ( Holding Wonder, Doubleday 1971)
"Crowning Glory" ( Holding Wonder Doubleday 1971)
"Boona on Scancia" ( Holding Wonder, Doubleday 1971)
"Love Every Third Stir" ( Holding Wonder, Doubleday 1971)
"Thrumthing and Out" ( F&SF, October 1972)
"Katie-Mary's Trip" ( F&SF, January 1975)
"The First Stroke" ( F&SF, October 1977)
"There Was a Garden" ( Cassandra Rising, Doubleday 1978)
"Tell Us a Story" ( F&SF, October 1980)
"...Old...As a Garment" ( Speculations, Houghton Mifflin 1982)
"Michel Without" ( Ingathering: The Complete People Stories, NESFA Press 1995)
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