For this fifth installment of this column’s occasional “On Beyond Cisgender” feature (a feature suggested by A. M. Leibowitz) about recommendations of books or stories for High School by authors outside the white, male, cisgender paradigm that has so often been the norm, the focus is on just one author, one who may not be so well-known as she was even twenty-five years ago.
The lines between science fiction and fantasy are blurred. The definition of science fiction is even sort of blurred. Sometimes the better term is “Science Fantasy.” Zenna Henderson, very definitely wrote science fantasy. While spaceships and aliens abound in her fiction (which is all short-stories) even the science comes off as magical or some paranormal gift. Henderson’s best known stories are her series about “The People,” gentle refugees from an unnamed planet who blend in with earthlings and have settled in their own small communities.
But they are different; they possess powers which might be defined as psi talents or levitation or telepathy. Mind over matter. They face fear and prejudice from humans (“Do not be un-Earth away from The Group” a youngster is warned in one story) and especially in the People stories, Henderson advocates for tolerance of those who are different. This in the 1950s, an era that largely celebrated conformity. But there were rebels in popular culture; Elvis, Sal Mineo and James Dean spring to mind. Zenna Henderson was one of the quiet rebels.
Among Henderson’s non-People stories are “Walking Aunt Daid,” and “The Believing Child” which show the oh-so-nice Henderson’s knack for horror and the eerie. “Love Every Third Stir” is a sort of wish-fulfillment fantasy where the fulfillment doesn’t go as planned, a story that would have fit well in the 30s-40s pulp magazine “Unknown.”
Henderson began publishing in 1951 and her last stories appeared in the late 70s and early 80s, decades known for social change, and Henderson did not avoid bringing up contemporary social issues: “The Closest School” is a riff on the integration issue of the 50s and 60s.
Henderson certainly did not shy away from possibly offending some readers; sincere religious belief is a steady undercurrent especially in the “People” stories, with references to their otherworldly version of Christianity as a natural part of the stories. She also managed to blend in a sentimentality that is neither mawkish or overdone.
Zenna Henderson lived in Arizona, where much of her fiction is set. She knew about children and teachers, both being frequent subjects for her stories: she had been a teacher for years and reportedly wrote in the evenings. She also understood about injustice; during World War Two she taught at a school for interred Americans of Japanese descent.
Zenna Henderson has been sometimes regarded as a “gateway drug” to adult sci-fi and fantasy. She has influenced a good many writers, and her work has been anthologized and there were several paperback collections of her “People” and non-People stories issued in the 70s, as well as a fine collection from NESFA Press of the People stories: “Ingathering” published in 1995, and another NESFA collection, this one of her non-People stories “Believing: The Other Stories of Zenna Henderson” which was published as recently as 2020.
Reason enough to believe she has not been forgotten. She does not deserve to be.
Jeff Baker’s fiction has appeared in “The Necronomicon of Solar Pons” among other places, and has been reprinted (as Mike Mayak) in “Swamp Life or How I Spent My Summer Vacation” from Puppycat Press. He blogs about reading and writing sci-fi, fantasy and horror around the thirteenth of each month in this same space. He lives happily with his husband Darryl and while they have both been to Arizona, they have never levitated anything. Jeff regularly posts fiction on his blog https://authorjeffbaker.com/and wastes time on Facebook athttps://www.facebook.com/Jeff-Baker-Author-176267409096907