Born 1 November 1917, Tucson, Arizona; died 11 May 1983
Daughter of Louis R. and Emily Rowley Charlson; married 1947
Zenna Henderson was born and educated in Arizona and has spent much of her life there. After being educated at Arizona State University (B.A. 1940, M.A. 1954), Henderson taught in schools throughout Arizona, including Eloy, where she lived until her death. She also taught at the Seaside, a tuberculosis sanitorium for children in Waterford, Connecticut.
In the early 1950s, Henderson began her career as a writer by publishing her short stories. Her short fiction has appeared in periodicals such as the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Galaxy, and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. In her early collections of short stories, The Anything Box (1965) and Holding Wonder (1971), typical characters are the schoolteacher (often the narrator), the child with extraordinary gifts, the youngster who observes supernatural happenings and accepts them as natural, and persons who encounter the first alien arrivals to Earth. Pervasive themes include the notion of a universal quasi-Christian morality throughout time and space, the importance of children as a new generation of Homo superior, and the tentativeness of the world's survival.
Typical of these short stories is "The Anything Box," in which the narrator, an elementary schoolteacher, notices that Sue-lynn, one of her students, is always looking at something concealed in her hands. It is the "anything box" in which one can see anything that is the most attractive or the most important to the person looking. The teacher recognizes "out of (Sue-lynn's) deep need she had found—or created it" and no rational or scientific explanation is offered. It is Sue-lynn's only source of solace after her father is convicted of robbery, because in the box she can see a happier world of the past. The teacher takes away the box because the child tries to escape into it, but after looking into it herself, the teacher realizes the power of the box will destroy her because she was not meant to have it. Later, she sees the child changed by a "maturity born of…sorrow and loneliness," and she returns Suelynn's property. The two become friends, for they recognize each other's strengths and failings.
Although all of her work has didactic overtones, some of it, like "The Closest School," is decidedly satirical. The characters are faced with an extraterrestrial version of school integration. Because the law states children can attend the closest school regardless of their color, a school board is forced to deal with the new family in town, the Powdangs, who are purple and fuzzy, and with their daughter Vannie, who is a youngster by their terms although she was born on 12 October 1360.
Henderson is most widely known for her series of stories about the People, who are humanoid aliens forced from their home because of a natural disaster and who have settled in various isolated communities on Earth. The stories are collected in Pilgrimage: The Book of the People (1961) and The People: No Different Flesh (1967). Although they are a gentle people, their gifts and talents—the ability to levitate, mind-read, heal, and experience others' sensations empathetically—mark them as different, and their Earth history is one of persecution and destruction. They are forced to live in hiding, holding back the gifts they could use for all humanity, because they know from bitter experience that those without the gifts would destroy them.
Henderson's creation of people who are more than human, yet who are moral, kind, and thoughtful, and who might offer solutions to the world's problems of illness and distress if they were allowed, makes a striking commentary on real life. Henderson is, moreover, a good storyteller, for by focusing on the personal and family lives of her aliens, she brings to science fiction a dimension it often lacks. Science fiction—especially in the 1950s, when Henderson began writing—took adventure as its primary subject matter. Stories dealt with monstrous aliens, space warfare, and adolescent male heroes; women were absent. Also missing were the details of everyday life—alien or not—that make all fiction moving and significant. Henderson's contribution to science fiction is her integration of philosophy and the more mature concerns of the family into the adventure narrative.
Henderson died in May of 1983, and a her People books were collected into one volume in 1991, aptly titled The People Collection. To her loyal fans from decades past as well as more recent admirers, Henderson's works were gathered into a comprehensive new book, Ingathering: The Complete Stories of Zenna Henderson, released in 1995. Throughout the decade, Henderson's stories continued to receive new acclaim and interest, with many appearing in anthologies and new books, including "As Simple As That" in the Norton Book of Science Fiction: North American Science Fiction, 1960-1990 (1993), "Subcommittee" in New Eves: Science Fiction About the Extraordinary Women of Today and Tomorrow (1994), "Through a Glass-Darkly" in Masters of Fantasy (1992, reprinted 1994), "Walking Aunt Daid" in Angels of Darkness: Tales of Troubled and Troubling Women (1995), and "The Anything Box" in A Magic Lover's Treasury of the Fantastic (1998).
Calkins, E., and B. McGhan, Teaching Tomorrow: A Handbook of Science Fiction for Teachers (1972). Sargent, P., Women of Wonder (1974). Sheets, A. J. and L. Trudeau, eds., Short Story Criticism: Excerpts from Criticism of the Works of Short Fiction Writers (1998).
CA (1967). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the Untied States (1995). St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers (1996).
—BILLIE J. WAHLSTROM,
UPDATED BY NELSON RHODES