Pilgrimage by Zenna Henderson

Subtitled “The Book of the People”, Pilgrimage is a fixup novel about a group of humanlike aliens stranded on our world (rural America in the 1950s — which is when the book was written) after their spacecraft, fleeing a destroyed homeworld, breaks up in Earth’s atmosphere. The People are enough like us to not only pass for human, but to successfully mate with us and produce children; the main difference is that they have ESP-like powers, including telekinesis, telepathy, and so on. (Though these powers are distributed — most can telekinese, but individuals also develop specific, specialised powers, which is an important point: the People are only fully realised when part of a community.) Quickly learning that, on Earth, “difference is death”, the People hide their powers, either living in isolated communities, or, separated from their kind, try to forget their powers and live as humans. There are even some second-generation People, and human-hybrid children, who have been brought up ignorant of their alien origins, and who, with the onset of adolescence, inevitably enter a troubled phase where they start to feel their difference from what they had assumed to be their fellow human beings all the more keenly.

Zenna Henderson was a contributor to the SF & fantasy magazines of the 50s and 60s, and her stories of the People are her most well known writing. She doesn’t seem to have produced anything of true novel length, so Pilgrimage is perhaps the closest we have. (Her main books are two collections of People stories, Pilgrimage and The People: No Different Flesh, and two more general collections, The Anything Box and Holding Wonder.) Pilgrimage glues together a number of People tales with the story of Lea, a suicidal young woman saved from killing herself by Karen, one of the People, who gently mocks Lea’s despair, turns her leap off a bridge into a gentle downwards float, then takes her to the People to listen to their stories, and thus be healed of her never fully explained angst.

The result is a series of often quite powerful fables of belonging and discovered identity. Zenna Henderson was a teacher, and many of her protagonists are teachers, too, often itinerant, which is an excellent way of getting them into odd rural communities, or of witnessing the troubled coming-into-power of “different” children. One episode, “Pottage”, is about a teacher who goes to an isolated, apparently highly Puritan community in which any natural expression of joy in the children is discouraged, to the extent of them being taught to drag their feet while walking, and certainly never to run or skip. This turns out to be an extreme form of the People in hiding — feet-dragging is meant to prevent these children from being tempted to “float” (use their telekinetic powers). (This episode was turned into a 1972 TV movie starring William Shatner.)

Still from The People TV movie

The style, and subject matter, of Pilgrimage often reminded me of one of my favourite early SF & fantasy authors, also active at the same time, Theodore Sturgeon. Both use SF & fantasy as a way of exploring the more intimate and emotional aspects of the human condition; in fact both used the possession of unusual powers, and the way this both isolates an individual and leads to a potentially greater fulfilment through community with similarly talented outsiders — think of Sturgeon’s gestalt of incomplete but ESP-powered people in More Than Human, for instance. Both write quite openly, sometimes floridly, but often almost casually, of the more intense human emotions, which might be misread by some as sentiment, but both also have too much a sense of the necessary difficulty of life to be truly sentimental. I was worried, though, while reading Pilgrimage, that Henderson’s having all her characters believe in a benevolent Presence or Power (the People often quote from the Bible) while never really questioning Its role in the trials and severe difficulties they are put through, would make the book unreadable for me. It didn’t happen, but was something I felt needed to be explored or explained more fully. (It was perhaps too much a part of Henderson’s own worldview for her to feel she should, though.)

Lea’s framing story didn’t achieve quite the point of resolution I was expecting, making me feel the book was perhaps missing an ending for her, but the final story, “Jordan”, was perhaps the best in terms of its exploration of the meaningfulness of the People’s tribulations. A spaceship arrives from a planet that another branch of the People have colonised. These are People who didn’t crash, and who have retained their technology and way of life, to the extent of moulding this new planet into a virtual facsimile of their lost Home. Although this is exactly what the Earthbound People have been hoping for, being presented with others of their kind who seem slightly divorced from the tough realities of life presents a quandary. Do the People really want to take this passage to a new “perfect” homeworld, or do they want to remain on Earth, and continue with the hard-fought life they’ve earned for themselves?

The Anything Box, by Zenna Henderson. Cover art by Hector Garrido.

This is the second Henderson book I’ve read. The first was The Anything Box, a collection of non-People SF & fantasy stories, many of which covered similar themes. (I reviewed it a while ago on Amazon.) I have to say that, though I can see how the People series was the perfect setting for an exploration of those themes, my favourite Henderson writing is still to be found in The Anything Box — the title story, about a young girl who escapes from domestic troubles by gazing into an invisible box in which she can see whatever she most desires, is such a pure fable of escape and imagination, it makes for a perfect short fantasy story. (Plus, it has a wonderful cover.) Zenna Henderson’s writing is not for those who can only tolerate modern styles, I think, but for me she’s certainly one of the more interesting and meaningful writers from the pre-New Wave era of SF & fantasy.