Monday, March 7, 2011


After reading Jo Walton's Among Others, featuring the most-beloved science fiction titles of my childhood, I had to find out more about the only author she mentions with whom I wasn't at all familiar, Zenna Henderson. Walton's narrator loves Henderson's novel Pilgrimage, so I ordered a copy, hoping it would be as good as the other books she and I both loved as young readers in the 1970s.

I was moved by the sympathy in Jenny's review of Among Others, in which she says about those of us who were, like Walton and her fictional narrator, young teenagers in the 70s:
"It’s touching to read about these kids who feel terribly isolated and different, and who find these small windows into a world where people are like them and love the same things they love. Poor things, if only they had grown up a few decades later, in this generation of the geek fairly decisively inheriting the earth."

This is part of what Henderson's novel Pilgrimage is about--kids who feel terribly isolated and different, and the stories of how they found others who were like them and loved the same things they loved. Because it's science fiction, the people who are like them are from their home planet, and they love things like being able to float above the ground, make coins glow, and read other peoples' minds.

The first story builds slowly, with readers finding out what make these people different much as any outsider would, through little slips, like a child "lifting" above the ground on the way to school "along a public road" where anyone could see.  Once we've seen this, though, we find out a little ahead of the new teacher that
"the members of our Group left their ship just seconds before it crashed so devastatingly into the box canyon behind old Baldy and literally splashed and drove itself into the canyon walls, starting a fire that stripped the hills bare for miles. After the People gathered themselves together from the life slips, and found Cougar Canyon they discovered that the alloy the ship was made of was a metal much wanted here. Our Group has lived on mining the box canyon ever since, though there's something complicated about marketing the stuff....Anyway our Group at Cougar Canyon is probably the largest of the People, but we are reasonably sure that at least one Group and maybe two survived along with us."
Eventually, the new teacher exhibits talents that reveal her to be a lost member of the People.

In each story, a lost member finds his or her way to the Group and finds acceptance.  The over-arcing story is about Lea, who is finding her way to the Group but has been merely filling up her days, thinking that her life is bearable, only to be told, like a gifted child who isn't living up to his potential: "if you won't fill the slot you were meant to you might as well just sit and count your fingers. Otherwise you will just interfere with everything."

When the earth People finally meet some of the People from the Home planet, more technologically advanced and effete, we get a description of the way one character's mother spends her time:
"what Mother likes is Anticipating a rose. She chooses a bud that looks interesting--she knows all the finer distinctions--then she makes a rose, synthetic, as nearly like the real bud as she can. Then, for two or three days, she sees if she can anticipate every movement of the opening of the real rose by opening her synthetic simultaneously, or, if she's very adept, just barely ahead of the other."
And then we get a look at ourselves as others see us when we think, along with the earth-born speaker, "I can't see spending two days watching a rose bud" only to hear the rejoinder:
"And yet you spent a whole hour just looking at the sky last evening. And four of you spent hours last night receiving and displaying cards. You got quite emotional over it several times."

So yes, this collection of stories, Pilgrimage, could well have been as dear to me as Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions or Roger Zelazny's Nine Princes in Amber if I'd discovered it back when I felt isolated, in the 1970s.  It wasn't quite as exciting as finding Michael de Larrabeiti's The Borribles from reading the excerpts at the beginnings of the chapters in Cornelia Funke's Inkheart--that was one of the most exciting literary discoveries I ever made--but certainly Pilgrimage is a book worth reading and owning.

Who would like this book?  Anyone who reads science fiction or fantasy. Any imaginative teenager.  Anyone who likes reading about the American west, where the stories are set.  Certainly anyone who has done any kind of teaching, because the stories are all about teaching children to use their gifts well.


Jo Walton said...

It makes me very happy that my book caused you to seek it out.

FreshHell said...

I've never heard of this but might have to find it for Dusty. I've never been a sci/fi fan and terms like "earth People" make me groan but I withhold my personal likes and dislikes when looking for books for Dusty. She's more interested in fantasy and we both loved Inkheart. Might give it a try.

Anonymous said...

Feeling convicted by the anticipating a rose thing--still sitting at my computer for "just a quick look" at some book blogs on a day when I promised myself I would clear up the gunk around the bulbs outside!

Anonymous said...

Among Others put this on my list, but didn't she say Zenna Henderson had done a novel as well? Or did I imagine that? I like speculative fiction short stories better than short stories in general, but I still vastly prefer a novel.

Jeanne said...

Jo, your book made me very happy in so many ways, not least of all discovering Zenna Henderson!

FreshHell, I think this book is for kids like Dusty who have special gifts and feel some responsibility for using them well.

Villanegativa, I love seeing ourselves as others see us, and I'm glad you came by today, when not that many other people had much to say.

Jenny, these are related short stories; they form a tale. All of the "pilgrims" eventually come to the canyon and meet others of the "People."

Gavin said...

I can not wait to read "Among Others", every blog review I've read makes it sound just wonderful.

I remember reading "Holding Wonder" by Zenna Henderson but don't think I read "Pilgrimage". I will have to find it.

Jeanne said...

Gavin, I think Among Others is wonderful. And I'll be looking for more books by Zenna Henderson.

Ana S. said...

I also loved that passage from Jenny's review. And I love the sound of this book.

Jeanne said...

Nymeth, I thought Henderson was going to be a British author, because I missed the occasional one, growing up in Missouri. They're very much about the American west, though, and I'd be interested in your reaction to that. I can't imagine you wouldn't love these stories.