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Review: Ingathering by Zenna Henderson

ingathering.jpgSome years ago, my sister gave me a copy of the NESFA Press hardcover edition of Ingathering, a collection of all of Zenna Henderson’s stories of The People, including a story timeline tying them together into a loose history. It came to me during a turbulent period of my life, and for some reason (Losing my publishing company? Moving to Colorado? Retirement? Moving back?) I never just sat down and read it. For that I apologize to her. I just finished it this afternoon. It was well worth the time and effort.

The stories are old; some were published the year I was born. (Zenna was born in 1917 and died in 1983.) I read many but not all of them before. I still have the MMPBs I bought in high school and college, and I’m glad I don’t have to read them again. My new reading glasses won’t be in for a week or two, and these old eyes just can’t process such small print by themselves anymore, quite apart from the fact that simply turning the now-yellowed pages would probably destroy the books.

If you’ve never heard of Henderson’s People, here’s the quick summary: In 1890, six starships full of the inhabitants of a planet they simply call The Home flee the planet, which is inexplicably disintegrating from no stated cause. One of these starships attempts a landing on Earth and miscalculates re-entry. An unstated number of People leave the big ship in lifeboats, and (some) land successfully in various places on Earth. The big ship crashes in (I think) the American West, still in 1890. The People Saga (my coinage) is about how the People struggle within a culture that treats them with suspicion and burns some as witches. For the People have what they call Signs and Persuasions, basically (to use that fine old ’50s term) psi powers. No complete catalog is given, but there are Sorters (intuitive psychiatrists), Motivers (telekinetics), Seers (prophets), Lifters (self-telekinetics), and a fair number of others, including one, called The Francher Kid, who can make musical instruments play themselves. All are telepathic. Over the years (the timeline runs from 1890 to 1970) the lifeboat refugees who survived the landing gradually find one another, and with greater or lesser success melt into human society.

The People are physically indistinguishable from us Earthlings, close enough to interbreed. Although not Christian, they worship a trinitarian God whom they call The Name, The Power, and The Presence. They are generous, kind, enthusiastic, helpful, and for the most part what Earthlings should be but aren’t. Friendship matters to them, and as you’ve heard me say many times, friendship is the cornerstone of the human spirit.

The People stories have been criticized as mawkish, corny, sentimental, maudlin, and repetitive. Many are tear-jerkers. Nearly all are surprisingly moving, especially if you’ve purged the cowardice some call cynicism from your life. (I have.) I put the box of Kleenex that lives on my desk on the table next to my reading chair. Yes, I needed it. A few of them made me want to stand up and cheer. That’s one reason I read them all again, after almost fifty years. There are no downer endings. Every single one is upbeat and affirming. And boy, considering the shitshow we’re all still in the middle of, I needed that.

Many of the stories are told from the viewpoint of one-room schoolhouse teachers in what is almost certainly Arizona, where Zenna Henderson was born, lived, wrote, and died. That’s what she was. Having been a teacher, she wrote from the heart about the very, very human business of learning. And not just numbers or words, but what’s right and what’s wrong, coming to know and growing into your own “magic powers,” how we are all very much in this together, and how together we can make it all work.

I’m still a little surprised that the only TV/cinema treatment of the People is a now mostly forgotten 1972 made-for-TV movie starring William Shatner and Kim Darby. (You can watch it on YouTube, if you can stand resolution that low.) I saw it in 1972 and enjoyed it. If anything deserves a 2021 reboot, The People Saga does.

I have a few reservations about the People Saga:

  • The People are just too damned perfect. Ok, there are a couple of stories showing members of the People acting selfishly, but for the most part, damn, if you need a hand they’ll fly half their settlement over to get you through a crisis.
  • Hard SF guy that I am, I wanted to know how they were so genetically identical to us that we could interbreed. Henderson shows no lack of imagination. It could be that some ancient godlike race scattered humans across the galaxy and let them grow into their powers. We chose machinery. The People chose…themselves. She could have given us a quick paragraph clarifying the matter.
  • Similarly, planets don’t just alluvasudden fall apart. There’s a whole well-known catalog of possible cosmic catastrophes. I wanted to know which one prompted the People’s star-crossed star crossing to Earth. Granted, that’s just me. Henderson provides some surreal hints that The People had forgotten too much about science and technology, and that The Power had to force them to remember what they’d lost, even if it meant scragging their planet and sending them across the galaxy to live among primitives who’d just as soon kill you as look at you.
  • Is FTL one of their psi powers? Damn, if I could only have one, that’d be the one. But there’s no indication of how their starships trumped Einstein.
  • The stories get a little repetitive at times. This is what worries me about my own Drumlins Saga. I don’t want the stories to plow the same field over and over. On the flipside, even when she tells the same story for the seventh time, it’s still affirming and still makes me reach for the Kleenex. She knew what she was doing, and was damned good at it.

I grinned to see this in Zenna’s Wikipedia bio: She was buried in Benson, Arizona.

Anything else I might say would include spoilers. I loved the book, and will read it again if life ever gets a little too depressing. If you need a mood-lift and don’t mind reaching for the Kleenex when necessary, well, here it is. Highly recommended.

6 Comments

  1. Carrington B Dixon says:

    Almost all open-ended series get repetitive. The saga of The People was written over a span over ten years and published so in The magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. (I am old enough to have read one of the last ones there when it was new.) They were not intended to be read all in one gulp. One of the nice things about ebooks, besides custom font size, is that you can carry around a bunch of books-in-progress and dip into them at suitable intervals. For example, break up The People saga with a C.A.Smith weirdy and a Solar Pons mystery before visiting the Africa of Burroughs or Haggard.

    1. The stories were in fact written across a period of 22 years, from 1952 to 1974. (There’s the usual list of copyright notices and dates after the indicia page.) That might account for what I saw. But if I hadn’t read them all in one swoop, I doubt I would have remembered all the connections between the stories, in characters, origins, and situations. I noticed a great deal that I don’t remember noticing in the period when I first read them, across the years 1968 to 1974 or so. But point taken.

      One weirdness I forgot to mention in the entry itself: Look on Amazon for used copies of the original paperbacks. Some of them are listed for several (or many) hundreds of dollars. I still wonder if that’s some sort of bot activity. If not, I’m at a loss to explain what might be the point of trying to sell a crumbling 1974 paperback for $768.57.

      1. TRX says:

        You covered that a few years ago, and came to the conclusion that it was either bots bidding against each other or “out of stock, but don’t want to go through the hassle of re-listing if another copy comes in.” Apparently that’s a common thing on eBay now.

        As the saying goes, “just because there’s a price on something, doesn’t mean that’s what it’s worth.”

        1. Except that Amazon isn’t a bidding environment like EBay. Some human had to set that price. I’ve seen people speculate that it’s a form of money laundering without explaining in detail how that might work. It’s a goofy enough notion that I might work out the details and write a story around it.

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  3. greatUnknown says:

    The People arrived on Earth when Einstein was about 11 years old; hence, relativity had not yet been formulated, and there was no problem with superluminal velocity.

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