Science fiction writer Zenna Henderson is best known for her "People" stories, which first appeared independently in science fiction magazines, especially Fantasy and Science Fiction. Henderson's People stories were immensely popular, and two anthologies of these stories, each with a bridging story, were published: The People: No Different Flesh and Pilgrimage: The Book of the People. Recently NESFA has published a new compilation of all of the People stories: Ingathering: The Complete Book of the People.
It is sometimes forgotten that Henderson wrote many non-People stories, most of which can be found in two collections: Holding Wonder and The Anything Box. These stories are gems and will appeal to readers whether or not they are familiar with the People stories. It is not an exaggeration, and not meant as a slight to so many other fine writers, to say that most of these stories (most less than 20 pages long) are more powerful and more memorable than the great majority of full-length novels out there. One need not wonder why Henderson never wrote a full-length novel. She didn't need to.
Many recurring themes can be found in Holding Wonder (teachers, students, and life in rural Arizona and New Mexico), but these non-People stories abound in exploration of new ideas and characters, and even some fascinating alternate worlds and realities. Anyone who has read Henderson's work will find these non-People stories unmistakably hers. Henderson's imaginative, layered language, her empathic and sophisticated understanding of children and everyday people, and her unassuming spirituality can be found in every story in Holding Wonder. Yet these stories vary widely in tone and subject matter. They range from whimsical to frigteningly dark, from near "hard s.f." to at least one story which is pure realist -- not science fiction or fantasy at all. But none of these stories could have been written by anybody but Zenna Henderson.
Stories in Holding Wonder
The Indelible Kind "The Indelible Kind" is unusual for this book because it is actually a "People" story. As such, it can be found in Ingathering: The Complete Book of the People as well as in this anthology. This story uses Henderson's most frequently utilized beginning: a teacher (the narrative voice) observes very unusual characteristics in a new student. In this case, the featured student is apparently very bright and in command of an advanced vocabulary, but seems unable to read aloud many simple classroom books. This seemingly mundane problem is surprisingly compelling in Henderson's telling, and becomes even more interesting as the teacher learns that her student is one of the People, and possesses an array of telekinetic and telepathic powers. Without losing its character-oriented focus, the story then launches into one of Henderson's most action-oriented plots ever as the teacher and the boy become involved in the rescue of a Russian cosmonaut stranded aboard a malfunctioning satellite. The rural Arizona kindergarden story and the daring space rescue may seem a little mismatched, but this story really works well. "The Indelible Kind" is a great opener for the anthology.
J-Line to Nowhere "J-Line to Nowhere" takes the reader on a breathtaking visit to a future where claustrophobic security and safety makes for a somewhat dystopian utopia. The world Henderson envisions here isn't unique, with its multitude of rules, regulations and technologies which dehumanize the population it protects. What is unusual is speed and depth with which the reader connects to the protagonist -- a young student who panics as his society's invisible walls enclose him, fleeing on J-train and ending up in a never-imagined place where real grass and dirt aren't covered up by his world's ever present concrete and civilization. Heaven in this world is a forbidden place where one can touch real mud, see ants, and tumble down an unprocessed bank to a naked stream. Later heaven is the memory of such a place, and the hope of returning someday. The fully developed landscape depicted in this story is all too possible, and must have been the ultimate nightmare for Henderson, who prized the desert life she so frequently praised. This is an engrossing cautionary tale that deserves contemplation.
You Know What, Teacher?
This story stands out for its dark and cautionary tone and for the complete lack of speculative elements. There is no wonder, no awe, no joy in this story of a teacher confronted with a student whose mood reflects turmoil at home between parents. The teacher is certain something terrible will happen, but has no basis to interfere. Indeed, she is haunted by a past incident where her attempts to help were of no consequence and a student ended up in juvenile detention. The troubled student of this story tells her teacher matter-of-factly that her mother says her father runs around with other women. The teacher hears a second hand account of a contemptible husband and the degraded wife desperate to hang on to him. Eventually the student's mother poisons herself and her husband to death, rather than lose her man, and sends the daughter to school unaware of what has happened, with only a note to the teacher by way of explanation. This is a gripping, important story, both very feminist and very moral. But it is not a pleasant story.
"You Know What, Teacher?" can fortunately be balanced by Henderson's other work. Henderson's writing at times soars to Utopian heights peopled with loving, spiritual, morally brilliant people, but it also touches upon depravity and subhumanity such as in this story. Henderson's body of work reveals an awareness of humanity which surpasses that of most writers -- an awareness evident even within this single story.
The Effectives Sometime in the future an Amish-like colony exists away from it all, right next to an advanced disease research facility. The two establishments have little contact with each other, except when an occasional outbreak of the disease being studied breaks out among the scientists, their religious agricultural colonist neighbors provide them with the blood donations necessary to treat the disease. A statistician-auditor arrives at the disease resarch center intent on discovering why there is a geographical disparity in people who recover from deadly disease after the blood therapy. He discovers that nothing is different about the blood from the religious colonists, except that they pray for the patient while they do their blood donation. This infuriates the auditor, who manages to infect himself in order to risk his own life to prove that prayer is not the effective factor in the treatment. Prayer, faith, religion and spirituality are present and important, although quietly in the background, in most of Henderson's stories. They take center stage here. This is one of Henderson's most scientific and technical stories with regards to her description of the medical research and scientific method. But this story has the potential to infuriate atheists. People of faith will love it, as it pokes good-natured fun at the close-mindedness that sometimes infects the nonreligious mindset.
Loo Ree This is very cosmic story set, once again, in a classroom. It starts out very interesting, with a first year student whose imaginary friend ("Loo Ree") seems convincingly real. Eventually the teacher/narrator can hear Loo Ree, too, and tutors her in reading. The ending has fascinating ramifications to consider relative to Henderson's own ethics, values, and cosmological worldview. As with many stories, there are many elements here that may reflect Henderson's Latter-day Saint background, although any conclusions one would draw between the story and the author's beliefs would be speculative. Unfortunately, the story's conclusion is so dominated by Loo Ree's exposition that the story suffers. One is left with a compelling, well-crafted story married to an interesting treatise, but the two don't necessarily work well together. This is a weaker piece in a generally strong collection.
The Closest School This is a very funny story about a family of aliens bringing their child to register at a rural school in the middle of Arizona nowhere -- so rural that there are only 14 students. The aliens are purple, furry, and have far too many eyes, but the surprised teacher and school board nobly register the student and do their best to treat the "foreigners" well. The school board president is so xenophobic that he probably hates Irish people, much less aliens. But he doesn't want to appear that way, which is why he bends over backwards to defends all foreigners, including these clearly nonhuman visitors.
Three-Cornered and Secure Various Latter-day Saint Christian cosmological themes once again bubble to the surface in this unusual story of time travel, angels, and a highway overpass. Driving along a newly constructed cloverleaf overpass a contemporary man suddenly finds himself in a tiny bubble of spacetime across a pond from a raygun-toting warrior from the future and an arrow-shooting savage from the past. Some localized effect allows them all to understand each other's language, but doesn't prevent them from attempting to kill each other and blame each other for their collective predicament. Extensive injury is prevented by the arrival of two guys dressed like telephone repairmen. In trying to identify themselves to the startled timelost trio the two guys run through a long list of words and phrases, none of which are understood by the contemporary man until he hears the word "angel." Yes, they explain, they're messengers from the realm beyond, come to patch up the damage to the spacetime continuum done by the particular shape of the four-leaf-clover-style overpass. A small amount of question-and-answer ensues which reveals a considerable amount of information about the "angels" and the cosmos in general, including the fact that, yes, they do answer to Someone upstairs. The repair necessary to the hole in space-time, in fact, is a three-cornered symbol left at the overpass which invokes the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.
This is a very entertaining story, largely because of the lively dialog arising from the intersection of regular guys from Past, Present, Future, and Beyond. The disparate cast together in a bubble outside space-time reminds one of Fritz Leiber's later novel The Big Time. The comical but affectionate handling of the most far-reaching notions of religion and cosmology is reminiscent of Samuel Taylor's Heaven Knows Why! and Kenny Kemp's much later I Hated Heaven. The story is less poetic in language and less empathic in tone than most of Henderson's work, but it is fun to read, and displays something of Henderson's considerably diverse range as a writer. Plus, it is interesting to contemplate how various story elements may reflect the author's own beliefs.
The Taste of Aunt Sophronia Set in a medical research lab battling a baffling disease, "The Taste of Aunt Sophronia" exhibits some similarities to "The Effectives." Taken together, these two stories highlight Henderson's ability to utilize a basic plot idea in totally different ways. (Her most recurring theme, of course, involves a teacher and the arrival of an unusual student, exemplified in this collection by "The Closest School", "Loo Ree", and "The Indelible Kind", as well as in many "People" stories.)
In "Sophronia" a disease brought back from space exploration is quickly fatal to all technicians who come into contact with it, except for six women, who suffer such agonizing pain that they are placed in suspension while scientists attempt to develop a cure. The survivors of the disease (dubbed simply "The Pain") are awaken periodically and notice that, Rip van Winkle-like, they are aging hardly at all while time marches on around them.
The entire story is told from the perspective of two surviving women who share a room: Thelia and Ruth. The researchers, nurses, other patients, etc. are vividly incidental in the telling of this tale. The dialog between Thelia and Ruth, and Ruth's internal monologues, are so prominent and delicious that the story reads very much like a single-set play. I was reminded of Waiting for Godot and Neil LaBute's bash: latter day plays, except there is considerable brightness mixed into this Henderson story of two isolated women taking many decades to die.
Hopefulness comes to this story after Thelia tells Ruth of the unendurable nightmares she experienced during her last suspension cycle. Ruth recalls her Aunt Sophronia's strangely effective weed-and-wildflower concoctions, one of which seemed to cure a wide variety of unrelated ailments. Aunt Sophronia's folk medicine had been the subject of a graduate student's masters thesis way back when, and Ruth decides to try to recreate the brew to administer to Thelia to quell her nightmares.
When an outbreak of The Pain suddenly hits the research center, Thelia and Ruth tell the chief doctor about the Aunt Sophronia's cure-all. He decides it can't hurt to use it on those who have contracted this usually fatal disease. They decide to administer the medicine to the many people who have contracted the disease. Unfortunately, they have only a limited supply of the treatment, because by the time the outbreak occurs the flowers which were the active ingredients are no longer in bloom.
As in "The Effectives", prayer plays an important part in this story, but it is less central here. While prayer was the active ingredient in the treatment regimen in "The Effectives," it is used here not as part of the cure, but to help determine who to give the cure to: some people are too far gone for it to help, and so the limited medicine must be used only on those who will benefit. Another expression of faith is Thelia's confidence that she'll see her long-departed loved ones after she dies.
"The Taste of Aunt Sophronia" serves up a sometimes jarring mix of bright optimism amid bleak situations, and intimate 19th century sensibilities juxtaposed against distantly sensed 21st century otherness. Echoing a familiar Henderson theme, the story once again lets rural desert folkways triumph over sterile urban modernity.
The Believing Child "The Believing Child" begins, once again, with a new and unusual student brought to the teacher/narrator's classroom. The six-year-old girl Dismey, who has never been in school before, is the daughter of migrant agricultural workers. Dismey's mother warns the teacher: "Teacher her true. She's a believin' child." Dismey, it turns out, literally believes everything she is told.
Although nothing in the story indicates whether or not Dismey' family are Latter-day Saints, she was born in Utah. This is not an accidental choice. This is a powerful and interesting story, not a parable. But one can see in the story of Dismey some Ruminations by Henderson about her own people. Henderson seems chagrined by the naivete found in many rural Latter-day Saints, yet at the same time is in awe of the power their belief gives them. Dismey's belief in the stories the teacher reads and the tales classmates tease her with is so powerful that reality bends to her beliefs. She is told by other kids that a rock they have placed on her shadow will prevent her from moving. After all the other kids return from recess, the teacher finds her out in the playground, struggling in vain to move from her spot. The teacher herself is unable to pick Dismey up until she moves the rock. Later this effect is manifest much more powerfully, with potentially devestating results.
Henderson never makes it clear whether the reality-bending power displayed in the story is unique to Dismey or is a universal that Dismey has a natural affinity for. This ambiguity and the eerie ambiguous ending further heighten the story's sense of gritty, grounded unreality.
Through a Glass--Darkly The protagonist is a contemporary Tucson woman who begins to see things in her peripheral vision that aren't really there. Her eye doctor confirms there is nothing physically wrong with her, and tells her that unless there is some psychological explanation, she might as well enjoy the "visions." Her ability to see unmoving objects such as rocks and cacti develops further into an ability to see moving objects such as birds and lizards. Later she can see entire scenes, which she and the eye doctor determine are scenes of actual past events. She is somehow looking approximately 100 years into the past. Later sound accompanies the visions, and even more surprising senses follow. In addition to the story of the woman who can see into the past, some of the scenes she sees piece together to form the story of another woman: Gayla, who ran away from home as a girl and was later buried as a woman of disrepute (although whether or not she was a prostitute or merely dishonored is never clear). There is much in this story left unexplained, especially why the main character became a witness, perhaps a participant, in events seemingly disconnected from herself. This story typifies one of Henderson's most frequent (and always satisfying) subjects: detailed exploration of the human impact of unusual phenomena, as experienced by ordinary people.
As Simple as That This story is anthologized in the influential Norton Book of Science Fiction (edited by Ursula K. Le Guin). It's not my favorite Zenna Henderson story, nor my favorite in this collection, so I find it an interesting choice for the Norton collection. (If you've read Disch's The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of you know that Le Guin did not base her story choices on an attempt to represent the best work of the various authors.)
"As Simple as That" has a fairly simple plot: After apocalyptic events, a teacher struggles to teach the remaining young people in a town which has become isolated from the rest of the world. The students revolt against writing stories that aren't true, and instead insist on writing, as a class, stories about things that have really happened. The stories reveal the devastating events that these children have witnessed, as well as how they are coping with the drastic changes.
This story ends with even more unanswered questions than a typical Henderson story. Most importantly, the teacher and students don't really know what happened to their world. In fact, one of their "stories" is titled "What Happened?", and lists the half dozen or so competing theories the students have heard from surviving parents and other adults in town. Yet the story is surprisingly hopeful, with the teacher breezily continuing to instruct the next generation regardless of what has happened around them.
Swept and Garnished "Swept and Garnished" is a very short story -- just five pages long. As I started reading it, absorbing its rich imagery and immediate emotional tug, I thought this might be a good story to read at an upcoming meeting of a literature discussion group I'm a part of. I even read the story aloud to myself, hearing Henderson's lyrical prose, testing it on my lips. The pages became a particularly powerful experience. But after I finished reading this story I knew there was no way I would read it at my "book club": there are some older ladies who attend and I was worried about how their hearts might handle the strain. This is the most frightening Zenna I've ever read.
"Swept and Garnished" tells of Tella, a woman assailed by the terrors of an urban landscape alive and menacing. Every crack in the street, every alleyway, ever step is a horrific obstacle which she can pass only with the right combination of arcane hops, twists, numbers, etc. The reader, and to an extent Tella herself, knows that all of this is only in her mind. But such knowledge actually heightens the pain and dread imposed by the story. Those who have read Orson Scott Card's Xenocide will recognize in Tella the symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Henderson's description of Tella's mental state is particularly impressive given that this story predates most books on the subject. I have no idea if Henderson based this story on information she read, from her seemingly bottomless well of first-hand experience with people, or made it up completely. But this is a gem among very short s.f. stories ("short shorts"), and further proof that Henderson wrote more than just benign classroom tales.
One of Them "One of Them" stands out in this anthology because it is really not science fiction or fantasy, but more of a mystery -- a very nontraditional mystery. Five women work as nurses in a remote hospital and live next to each other in dorm rooms. They are close friends, eat meals together and talk frequently.
As befits a mystery, one of the five women is murdered and the reader encounters clues until the end of the story, when the identity of the murderer is revealed. In a truly innovative move that is the heart of this story, there is another mystery: The narrator does not know her own identity. She knows she is one of the five women (or one of the four, after one dies), but she doesn't know which one. It sounds bizarre, and it is certainly experimental. But it works exceptionally well. The shock of being party to a murder (whether witness or perpetrator she does not know yet) has caused her to disassociate part of her thinking from herself, so she feels like an observer of all of the women, part of all of them simultaneously unanchored to a single individual.
Each of the women has starkly drawn yet realistically interesting personalities: Greta the hypochondriac, Kit the man-hungry flirt, Cleo the fearful one, Allison the complainer, and Dorothea the neatness freak. These broad characterizations underscore the distinctiveness of the women while accentuating the narrator's curious inability to identify herself among them. The story is emotionally engaging, intellectually stimulating, and set in a distinctive milieu. Calling it a "mystery" is only a best attempt at genre-oriented categorization. This story subverts and transforms all expectations of genres and of Henderson stories, and produces something completely unique.
Sharing Time This classroom tale has a boy bringing a silver metallic sphere to class for Sharing Time ("show-and-tell"). He holds it up to his head, and the ball seems to pass completely through his head to the other side. Actually, it does pass through his head somehow, but the teacher-narrator convinces herself, for a time, that this is an optical illusion. The boy has the entire class line up and he passes the sphere through everybody's head. Afterward, the class is strangely quiet. Gone is the constant murmer of sound that the teacher has become accustomed to. Later in the day the teacher realizes that when during recess, and on some unusually long bathroom breaks, the boy has gone around to the entire school, passing the sphere through the heads of the students. All of the teachers report similarly strange behavior. The title "Sharing Time" has a double meaning. Not only does it refer to the classroom event during which the story begins, it also refers to the telepathic "sharing" of minds that the children have become capable of as a result of exposure to the sphere. With its teacher protagonist, classroom setting, Mysterious New Phenomenon, understated but significant religious faithfulness, and even its arguably awkward concluding exposition, this story is like an archetypal Zenna Henderson story. Given the familiarity of its elements, it is quite good, but not surprising.
Ad Astra This is a story that starts out rather funny, remains silly throughout, and ends quickly (thank goodness). "Ad Astra" is about a man who has been transformed so that he breathes carbon dioxide and exhales oxygen. When he explains his condition to a friend, the friend realizes that combining carbon dioxide breathers with normal oxygen-breathing humans could result in great economy for lengthy space flights. Any misgivings about potential holes in such a plan are soon forgotten as the story reveals how the story's subject became plant-like. It involved an unlikely combination of shoveling manure, imbibing moonshine, bathing in a trough of green liquids and solids found around the barn, and infatuation with a pretty young woman. Think of this as "hillbilly science fiction." The story becomes even more preposterous as a scientific research team attempts to duplicate the effect, to produce more carbon dioxide breathers. The whole thing is just strange. "Ad Astra" is probably my least favorite Zenna Henderson story, but it does have some very funny parts. Fortunately the story doesn't seem to take itself too seriously.
Incident After This is a very short piece -- only five or six pages long. In a way slightly similar to "As Simple as That" this story dives right into to the aftermath of dramatic changes, offering glimpses of people who have already adjusted and established new patterns of living. Thematically, this story is about Change, specifically about a mother who struggles to adjust to new realities, but does so at a rate slower than her two daughters and husband. Sessa achieves a minor victory in this story simply by taking one step outside her home. Meanwhile, her daughters already attend school and think nothing of venturing outside.
One daughter is away at college and calls home to report that she attended a dance where there were twenty adults present -- apparently it is extremely unusual to see so many people in one place. Perhaps most of the world's population was wiped out during the big events which this story alludes to but doesn't describe in detail because all the characters are so familiar with what happened.
This story about how people adapt to change appears to have Much Underneath the Surface and probably deserves multiple readings. Zenna Henderson, along with her characters, clearly think and feel deeply. What's impressive about Sessa (as with many other Henderson characters), is how she embodies emotions, fears and hopes which are familiar to us, but which are rarely encountered in science fiction. This genre routinely serves up characters who smugly are better than those around them -- people who are more ready to change, to master to new technologies, to "see things as they really are." Sure, these Heroes are entertaining. But we've met these variations on a basic type countless times. Rarely do we find a protagonist like Sessa. Amidst a purely science fictional setting, Sessa's triumph is taking one step outside her house, and her goal is to walk her daughter all the way to the bus stop.
The Walls This is another very short story with a rather simple plot: A young school girl in Colonial America is teased by her classmates for telling a seemingly preposterous story. As the kids have evidently done before, they pretend to be ready to believe her and prod her into telling her story again. She tells of tripping a "fold" in space, falling through darkness, and ending up in a field of sunflowers. She encounters a woman who takes her to a marvelous house with see-through walls (windows) and strange devices such as one that can make bread into toast without a fire (a toaster) and an iron which smoothes clothes without being placed on a fire. The reader realizes that the girl accidently traveled to contemporary America. Frightened when the homeowner starts talking on a telephone, the girl runs away from the house, back to the field, where she managed to trip through the same space-time irregularity. The other kids start teasing her again after she finishes retelling the story, but the girl is rescued by an adult who believes her. The adult, it turns out, had tripped through the same fold in space, but was stuck in the dark space passageway, until being released back to his own time by the girl's passage.
In this story Henderson uses the same convenient tears in space-time that she used in "Three-Cornered and Secure," in a completely different way, and to good effect. This very simple tale of a person from another era befuddled by the things we take for granted reminds one of the classic ethnographic "text" about the "Nacirema" people. That document, widely used in college anthropology courses, describes contemporary Americans in anthropological terms which are accurate and precise, but mask the fact that the people being described are ourselves, not some bizarre Native tribe. Henderson is neither the first nor last to use such a plot device, but this brief piece is remarkably effective.
Crowning Glory If you've ever wondered why there isn't more science fiction written about hair styles, you'll enjoy "Crowning Glory." Yeah, this story, set 300 years in the future, is about hair. Aliens visiting from another galaxy have a mishap that depletes a resource their spacecraft needs for them to get home. There is no way to synthesize the material, but working with human scientists they realize that there is an acceptable substitute: long blonde human hair. (I'm not making his up.) Alas, trends in hair styling are such that everybody wear's fancily-shaved buzz cuts. There is only one person in known space with long blonde hair, and she is particularly attached to her archaic style because it's a family tradition. All humanity wants her to give up her coiffure for the alien visitors, but she can't bear the thought. (I won't give away the ending, but it's a happy one, and involves the secret formula for preventing aging.)
If this sounds silly, well, the story is silly. The plot points and coincidences seem so contrived and forced that this inverted Samson story is actually funny in many places. Yet the tale is told with deadly earnest. I couldn't determine if I was laughing at an inept story or laughing with a master storyteller who was presenting blatantly bad science fiction for an ingenious, subversive effect.
Boona on Scancia Boona is a dog -- the only dog in the space fleet. Perhaps this is a story that could be enjoyed by kids or dog lovers. The best thing about it is that it's mercifully short -- about 5 pages. For amusement, contemplate whether "Boona on Scancia" served as the inspiration for Rachel Pollack's "Angel Baby." I'm sure it didn't, but there are some un-canine-y similarities.
Love Every Third Stir This is another story that is mostly just silly. But it's also very funny, one of the funniest in the collection. A quirky couple periodically receives "inventions" as gifts from the wife's aunt. After the disastrous results of one such invention, they stopped trying them out. The latest offering, a cream that is supposed to prevent a man's whiskers from every growing again, is placed on a shelf, untested, with the others. But when the husband needs to rush out to an important business trip, his wife tries the concoction on him, because she had not had time to buy regular shaving cream. Over a week later he returns, with his chin still shaved clean. They realize that Aunty's invention really works. If they can market it, they could all be rich! Unfortunately, the wife has already thrown it out. Can it be duplicated? Well, not exactly. This is an amusing story that tosses traditional science out the window, but once again offers insight into Henderson's interest in prayer.