I know these words must seem silly. Maybe you're choking by now. "Perfect gem???" Who is he kidding? It seems outrageous, I know.
But this is how Zenna Henderson's stories make a person feel. I'm not some twelve-year-old girl, either. I've read (and very much enjoyed) my share of Douglas Adams, Harlan Ellison, William Gibson, and James Morrow. Biting, satirical, cynical, hilarious literature. Zenna Henderson is their polar opposite, and she turns my inside out in the most bizarre ways. In very good and unexpected ways.
All of the stories in Pilgrimage are about the "People," the gentle, telepathic human-seeming aliens who populate nearly all of Henderson's fiction. The People can seem almost impossibly nice and inviting. The Stainless Steel Rat would be driven insane after five minutes with them. If Arthur Dent (Hitchhiker's Trilogy) ever met the People he would probably cease to exist on the spot. There's a part of you that says, "The People are real, and I want to join them."
A central aspect of life for the People, which is a driving force in these stories, is that they are Outsiders with a Home. The People look exactly like humans of Earth, but they do not completely fit into mainstream Earth culture. Even if they try, even if they try for generations, they can not be fully integrated. So they remain outsiders, although "Outsiders" is how they refer to natives of Earth. But they're not lost because they belong so completely to each other. Although each of the People is an individual, and may even be a rebellious or strong-willed or contrary individual, each is also completely included within their small community. Only with other People are they able to really live and thrive.
If you're fortunate enough to be part of a community the way the People are a community, you'll recognize so much in this book. You'll wonder if Henderson is writing, at least a little bit, about your background. A wide variety of people have embraced and recommended these stories: Jews, Wiccans, Latter-day Saints and other Christians. People in the GLBT community have felt unique kinship with the People, probably not realizing that Muslim readers have felt the same way.
On the surface, Henderson's stories are inoffensive, because they're about aliens. But if one pauses to think about the People, their joys, their life, and the almost overpowering appeal of their community, one realizes that these stories are absolutely subversive and politically incorrect. The People embody so many values that seem the opposite of those embraced by today's pop culture. Their stories force reevaluation of deeply ingrained values. They are unrepetantly spiritual and exclusive. They nonjudgmentally embrace all who are part of their clan. They are strictly secretive about themselves. Their qualities all seem too good, or opposite contemporary sensibilities. Yet as you read about and live with this peculiar people, you feel like their way is the way to live.
The stories of the People shift the reader to an "altered state" partially because of Henderson's masterful, unusual use of language. The stories have a rural classical feel to them, only partially attributable to the era in which they were written. The language is noble and intimate. There's something of Jane Austen in Henderson's writing. But something else as well, a very Southwestern sensibility. One recalls Terry Tempest Williams, as Henderson frequently describes the stark beauty of the Arizona/New Mexico desert settings. In all the science fiction and fantasy I've read, I've never encountered any language quite like Henderson's. At times Connie Willis reminds me of Henderson. Many authors, including Orson Scott Card and Kathy Tyers, have specifically cited Zenna Henderson as an important early influence. But of course, all of these authors wrote after Henderson, and it would be anachronistic for anybody to write just like her today. Henderson's language was probably anachronistic when it was first published. That's part of its charm and otherworldliness.
Henderson's stories hold up today and are still in print nearly twenty years after her death. Some of the familiar American traditionalism described in these stories seems alien today. But "alien" is hardly a bad thing when it comes to science fiction. These are timeless tales with enduring themes. Hendeson will be remembered because her fiction will be remembered and will only increase in popularity.
Henderson will also be remembered as one of the first major female science fiction writers. She predates Anne McCaffrey, Margaret Weis, Rosemary Edgehill, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Lois McMaster Bujold, Octavia Butler, C. J. Cherryh, Ursula K. LeGuin, Judith Moffett, Judith Katz, Tanith Lee, Sherwood Smith, Joan Slonczewski, Martha Soukup and so many other talented female writers. She was a contemporary of Tiptree, yet completely different. Her writing has been called "pre-feminist." This may be true in the chronological sense that it pre-dates Feminism's era of literary prominence. But in theme and content Henderson's writing transcends any attempt to pigeonhole it as "feminist" or "non-feminist." Even though the place of women among the People was far ahead of Henderson's time, there may still be much in these stories that can anger and shock Feminism. But there is also much that embodies Feminism's most unrealized hopes, and does so with clarity and realism borne from experience.
I'm doing a disservice to Pilgrimage in my attempt to describe some of my thoughts about it. As unbelievable as it may seem, I stand by my description of this book as a "gem." It's a very solid, beautiful work of literature. It is an IMPORTANT work of science fiction. It has a lasting affect on people. To the extent that it describes your people, it can affirm your appreciation for them. Where it differs, it can create a sense of longing, even a desire to change yourself and your community for the better.
In all my previous reviews I've described what type of reader would like a particular book, as well as who might not like it and who the book may not be appropriate for. But I would recommend Pilgrimage to any reader, young or old.