Zenna Henderson – A Woman of “The People”

During research for the next Excalibur Books release, I recently came across the name of Zenna Henderson as the author of “Ararat”, a story I read many years ago. The more I read about her, the more I became intrigued …

Her books are not novels, but a series of inter-connected short stories about “The People” – the literary creation for which she is remembered today. The People are a race of humanoid aliens who escaped the destruction of their own planet and crash-landed on Earth, seeking refuge in a remote valley deep in the southern United States. The People have immensely powerful psychic powers; they can levitate, heal, communicate telepathically,

As they are forced to reside on Earth temporarily (or so they believe), The People are often forced into encounters with human beings, to acquire essential supplies or equipment. This is the central theme of Henderson’s stories, and is also the premise of Marvel’s X-Men, and many other similar concepts. Who are the strangers among us? Should we fear them? Should we trust them? If someone is not like us but “different” in some way, should we accept them unconditionally – or reject them? Should we force them to be like us, so they fit into our community? Should we endevor to find out why they are different? If so, how far do we go? Interrogate them? Experiment on them? Vivisect them?

Zenna Chlarson Henderson was born on November 1, 1917 in a suburb of Tucson, Arizona. She graduated from Arizona State in 1940 with a Bachelors Degree in education and worked as a teacher in Arizona throughout her life. She passed away on May 11, 1983, at the age of 65, also in Tucson.

The “People”stories were first published in leading science fiction magazines during the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies, and had a profound influence of later writers and works (Orson Scott Card’s “Ender’s Game”, and the afore-mentioned X-Men). Henderson should be remembered as a pioneer in many ways; she was one of the first female writers in a genre dominated by men, with predominant themes of technology, exploration and heroism. Not only that, she wrote openly as a woman and did not use a male pseudonym or initials. to increase her chances of acceptance.

Henderson worked as a teacher all of her adult life, which is probably why her portrayals of children and teenagers are so convincing. Part of this experience included teaching children in Japanese internment camp in Sacaton, Arizona, during World War Two – which no doubt inspired her to write on the themes of tolerance and persecution. She was also raised in the Mormon Church, although her works are by no means religious diatribes, but works of fiction infused with the potential goodness of common humanity – which, we learn, can also be found in non-humans such as The People.

I would like to quote one Amazon review by “Bobbo”, which I think describes her work very well;

“Somehow Zenna Henderson taps into language in an unusual way, accessing emotions and forgotten innocence. Her characters are earthy yet somehow angelic, flawed in their way, but devoted to growth. While Ms. Henderson spent some time as a religious person, and the stories are filled with Biblical references and allusions, the only thing we know of The People’s belief system is something they call “the Presence,” and that life does not end with physical death.”

Her books and stories about The People were the basis for the movie The People, 1972, starring William Shatner and Kim Darby.

They can be found here on her Amazon author page … ready for generations of a new century to discover!

About J P Catton

Speculative storytelling and skewed fiction: the blog and website of author John Paul Catton.
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