Zenna Henderson’s ‘Pilgrimage’ – A Review

Zenna Henderson was not your typical sci-fi writer, and that is saying something for a genre positively gushing with eccentrics and standout personalities, even in its early years.  Or rather, especially in its early years.  For one thing, she was a transitional writer, beginning her career right at the tail end of science fiction’s Golden Age but prior to the New Wave (which didn’t properly begin until about the early 60s).  The New Wave was marked by the shift of focus away from mankind’s boundless potential, technological achievements and conquering of space and onto more social and political themes and the problems inherent to mankind.  Pilgrimage has some of that, yet it shares more with Golden Age sci-fi’s inexhaustible spirit and sense of wonder.

For another thing, Henderson’s was a thoroughly feminine voice in a time before women really embraced science fiction as their own, and what’s more, she did so without disguising her femaleness in a genre with a predominantly male readership.  Miss Henderson was an elementary school teacher by trade, and the stern but gentle nature she must’ve exhibited as part of her occupation sets the tone for this dainty wisp of a book, which is less a true novel than a collection of short stories stitched together via a framework piece about a depressed, suicidal young woman who meets one of the People by happenstance and is introduced to their group, with their individual stories becoming therapy for her.  In fact, ‘therapeutic’ would be a good way to describe this book, as would ‘pastoral’ and ‘spiritual.’  Those aren’t necessarily compliments, mind you.

The most glaring problem with the book though is that it’s basically plotless.  The connective cartilage of these stories is the so-called Ingathering, the reverse diaspora of an alien population which crashed on Earth sometime in the mid to late 1800s–the exact dates of arrival are not clear. These humanoid aliens, the People, apparently arrived in a series of ships which landed all over the American West and beyond.  For such an intelligent, psychically powerful and technologically advanced society, the People take a godawful long time to find each other.  There’s also a distinctly Christian aura to the spirituality with which the People proudly gird themselves.  Individually, the six stories that make up the meat of the book–Ararat, Gilead, Pottage, Wilderness, Captivity, and Jordan–are moderately good to very good in quality, although none are what I’d consider outstanding.

The first one, Ararat, was originally published in 1952, and in it we learn of the Crossing, the mass exodus of the People from their home world (which is called, get this: Home) after its sudden and unexplained destruction.  Everything about the People is generalized to the point of harmless tepidity.  Their society is made up of isolated pockets of utopia that bear an uncomfortable resemblance to the Mormon faith in which Henderson was raised (but left as a young woman for reasons unknown, even though she technically never renounced membership in the church), and the People are the very embodiment of the ideal 1950s American family, right down to the sexist gender roles and perfectly obedient children–faithful to their God and each other, singularly benign, and ever-optimistic.  Except that they have psychic powers.  Some can read minds, some can heal, some can turn sunlight into a semi-solid substance and scoop it right out of the air.  Most can levitate.

Despite the People’s godlike patience and unshakable cheerfulness, they understandably feel like outsiders in their new home in the American West and tend to keep to themselves, which is really just one big metaphor for Mormonism, isn’t it?  However, the People’s plight is so broadly portrayed that different sorts of folks can relate to it and have, including gays and lesbians, which Henderson’s beloved religion of course shuns.  But by and large the message against oppressing those who are different resounds convincingly through these tales.

Where the book really excels, however, is in the stories set in the classroom, which are the only ones in the book that have any actual drama, to be honest.  Pottage, the single story from Henderson’s saga of the People ever to to be filmed, concerns a young outsider working as a teacher within a People’s community who discovers that the children are joyless and strictly controlled by their elders.  After learning that these amazing kids have powers, she gradually convinces them and their parents that those powers are their birthright and should not be forbidden to them, merely managed.  But the best story here by far is Captivity, about an angry teenage boy of the People, an orphaned troublemaker who is disliked by his classmates and townsfolk alike.  In some ways he’s the archetypal misunderstood sensitive genius, in this case one fascinated with music, but what’s most compelling about him is that his abilities seem to be setting him on a path beyond mere villainy.  With a few minor tweaks, the Francher kid’s fable could be the origin story of a music-themed supervillain–the Maestro, perhaps, or the Conductor–but one that has been narrowly averted just in time by his clever and caring teacher, who sets him on the right path at last by convincing him of his specialness and great potential to help mankind, probably the ultimate fantasy of teachers everywhere with respect to the “bad kid” in their classrooms.

Another highlight of the book is the sheer beauty of Henderson’s writing.  Her style is unique and poetic, if occasionally oblique.  The People, despite their insipid docility and frustratingly conformist nature, are so warm, close and well-drawn that you can almost reach out and touch them.  These are aliens that most people wouldn’t mind an invasion from.  They’re the ideal neighbors: peaceful, friendly and fiercely private.

The final story in this collection, Jordan, is the most “science fiction-y” of the bunch, in that an actual spaceship has arrived to pick up some of the People and carry them to their newly founded Home (redux).  The ship hovers languidly above a farm for days as the People decide who will go to the new Home and who will stay on Earth.  This is quite reasonable, as it’s no small decision.  Some of the People, despite the mistrust of the humans, have come to love their adopted planet; for those born here, it’s all they’ve ever known.  And, of course, being unregistered aliens, they are not legally Americans, and yet America is decidedly better off for having them.  It’s an allegory I imagine many of the current illegals in the U.S. might relate to.

This story also has the most explicitly drawn character studies and world-building; one can see how Henderson’s vision solidified a bit over the years that she produced the individual pieces, and how the characters became more nuanced and defined, though it may be too little too late for those readers who prefer hard details over the hazy background sketches Henderson offers.  The heart of this piece is a budding romance between an adolescent boy of Earth’s People and a girl who comes along for the ride on the rescue ship with one of her parents.  It’s a good one to round out the collection because there is a certain crowning quality to it, as the People’s odyssey finally reaches closure.

If you’re into intense action and swiftly moving plots, don’t even look in this book’s direction because I promise you’ll be sorely disappointed.  However, if you prefer your stories to be more laid back and contemplative and don’t mind the religious implications, this may be for you.  It’s also a valuable look into the mind of a prominent female science fiction writer from a time when that was a bona fide anomaly, even as first-wave feminism was well-established.  That doesn’t mean you will find much speculative feminist thought here though; Henderson’s work fits plainly into patriarchal traditions.  But somewhere in these odd little bonbons, buried beneath all the niceties, is an angry feminist voice crying to get out.  Maybe we’ll find it in the stories from her later compilations.

Grade: B- 

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