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No different flesh

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I was putting books on my bookshelves the other day and realized that Ingathering: The Complete People Stories, by Zenna Henderson, didn't really need to go on my not-done-reading bookcase (which has way too many books on it); I've read either all the stories in it or all but one. (I can't remember whether I've read the one that Ellison bought for The Last Dangerous Visions and never published.)

So I picked it up and figured I'd skim through some of the stories I know I've read, and make sure I've read all of 'em, and then I could put it on my read-books bookcase.

And on re-skimming, I'm reminded of just how much I love these stories, and Henderson's writing.

I first encountered Pilgrimage: The Book of the People in a paperback edition that had belonged to my mother, when I was probably eight or ten; fortunately, someone had blacked out the entire front cover in a thick solid layer of black crayon, because (as I later found out when I saw another copy of that edition) the front cover had a really creepy and unpleasant illo of a spooky-looking farmer that probably would've kept me from reading the book, and that would've been a shame.

At any rate, I adored the stories, and I eventually found and bought the other three volumes in the Avon set of Henderson short story collections. So when NESFA Press came out with this nice hardcover edition of all the People stories (including a couple not in those Avon volumes) collected in one place, I figured I had to buy it.

A quick note for those who have no idea what I'm talking about: did you ever read Escape to Witch Mountain, or see the movie? Alexander Key (who's otherwise one of my favorite authors of kids' books) lifted the entire idea of that book from Zenna Henderson's stories of the People, human aliens with special abilities who crash-landed on Earth in the late 1800s. Witch Mountain is a watered-down version of the People stories, with much less richness and magic and power and sense of wonder, and secularized to remove any trace of Henderson's strong spiritual/religious leanings.

(Um, and speaking of movies, if you saw the dreadful TV-movie version of Pilgrimage starring William Shatner (titled The People), just pretend you didn't, okay? It bears little resemblance, except in plot, to Henderson's stories, and has turned off many a potential reader.)

Okay, so, here are my comments on re-skimming the first six People stories, the ones that were collected in Pilgrimage (and the intercalary framing device that Henderson added for that volume to tie the stories together).

The typical story in Pilgrimage goes like this:

An alien (or group of aliens) with special abilities lives among humans and must hide their special abilities, but in the end they discover that they're not alone, that there are others like them, and they learn to rejoice in their specialness.

Also like this:

Someone is despairing and/or depressed, and the magic and wonder of the People gives them faith.

These plots are trite and predictable. And yet, even all these years after I first read them, even reading them with semi-cynical adult eyes and awareness of just how blatantly they're manipulating my emotions to get their religious message across (and how blatantly Henderson was using reader-identification characters to keep sf fans interested), they still bring a lump to my throat and a tear to my eye. (The phrase “religious message” gives entirely the wrong idea. Perhaps “non-denominational religious message”? Or “spiritual message”? It's a message about faith and essential one-ness, not about any particular religion.) They're gorgeous stories, and they still produce that old sense of wonder and that old longing, the feeling I had when I first read The Dark Is Rising at age ten and a half and was sure that when I woke up on my eleventh birthday (even though it wasn't midwinter's day) I would be let in on the secrets of the Old Ones.

“Fans are Slans” goes the old line (and if you don't know what that means, you should go to your local library and dig up a copy of A. E. van Vogt's Slan because it's an important part of science fiction history), but similarly Fans are the People; the story of people who must hide their special abilities from the mundanes around them to avoid being hated and feared, but who eventually find each other, clearly resonates with a lot of fans looking for something to Belong to. But Henderson does it way better than most writers.

There's a lot of sf with similar themes—I'm particularly reminded of Wilmar Shiras's “In Hiding” and the sequels, which prefigured Nancy Kress's “Beggars in Spain” and the resulting novel and sequels. There's an essay to be written about all that, tracing the common thread, but I ain't writin' it right now. But I can't help noticing in passing that all three authors are women, and being intrigued to see that “In Hiding” predates the first People story by about four years; I wonder if Shiras and Henderson knew each others' work. Oh, and of course “In Hiding” influenced other things as well: one X-Men FAQ reminds me that it may've been one of the inspirations for the X-Men.

But that's also another essay, and it's late and I'm half-asleep and rambling. So I'll just return to my original theme for a moment to say: Zenna Henderson. Good stuff.

And now it's off to bed.

6 Comments

Hm, I'll have to borrow that Zenna Henderson book from you one of these days, but meanwhile: must speak up on behalf of _Escape to Witch Mountain_. You may feel it lacks power etc, but that book (and the movie) were absolute magic to me when I was a kid. As for the idea being copied: there are a million books out there that play on the wish-fulfillment fantasy of children who discover secret powers and a connection to a magical family/community. Some of them work and some of them don't; I'm inclined to feel that the idea itself is so basic that it's fair game; what matters is how you tell the story. I liked Key's telling of it back when I was ten years old, and when I recently re-read the book I still thought he did a bang-up job of it. Straightforward and simple but sincere enough to tap directly into my sense of wonder.

So there.


I read both Zenna Henderson and Alexander Key's work when I was a kid (~10 and up). I think I found Key first, and loved his books. But then I read Henderson and loved her books even more. Doesn't mean I stopped loving Escape from Witch Mountain (and Key's other work--The Forgotten Door is in much the same vein). I just felt, even as a pre-teen, that Henderson did that sort of thing better. Just my personal opinion.

: )


Clearly I need to borrow that book :)


I was a weird kid, I guess: I loved The Forgotten Door but really disliked the Witch Mountain books/movies (too sappy and unrealistic), and only very recently realized they were by the same author. Though I admit, the lasting memory of Witch Mountain is from the movies, not the books; perhaps they were a lot worse?


Well, I never saw the movies, so I can't comment on that.


Just happened across this old entry from 2003, and saw that I'd never replied to these comments. Belated apologies.

Karen wrote:

there are a million books out there that play on the wish-fulfillment fantasy of children who discover secret powers and a connection to a magical family/community

This is true. However, Escape to Witch Mountain is a very close copy of the plot and situations and backstory from Zenna Henderson's People stories. It's not just the kind of broad similarities you're talking about; it's the whole plot, the whole backstory, and a lot of specific details. Henderson did it a couple of decades earlier and, in my view, much better; Key's version was much more popular.

There's a web page that details some of the specific correspondences. There are a lot of them. As the page notes, "nobody can read Henderson's stories and Key's book (or see the Disney movie) without being struck by the many similarities."

(Note, btw, that A Distant Soil also starts out with many similarities, but takes things in a very different direction pretty quickly. There are, as you noted, many things one can do with the basic idea. Key chose to do almost exactly what Henderson had done.)

I might well have really liked Key's version if I'd encountered it first; as I noted, he was one of my favorite authors as a kid. But as it turned out, I was too put off by the similarities to Pilgrimage to enjoy his version. It read to me like a kids'-book adaption.

I've never seen any comments from Key himself on the similarities. I can't imagine that the borrowing was intentional—his other work is imaginative and excellent, so he was clearly capable of coming up with compelling ideas and storylines and situations. But I also can't imagine that it was coincidence, or just drawing on a shared common set of story archetypes; the connections are too strong and too direct.

...I don't mean to say that you were bad or wrong for enjoying Witch Mountain. Millions of people loved it; it clearly spoke to people. I'm just saying that Henderson's treatment of those themes and ideas (and that plot and those characters and that backstory) was even better: richer and more mature and, to me, more interesting.

Re Key's other work: I liked The Forgotten Door fine, but the one I really loved was Flight to the Lonesome Place.


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