The Improbable Worlds of Zenna Henderson

In the 1950s and 60s, when most science fiction tales revolved around swashbuckling adventure and intergalactic monsters, Zenna Henderson’s work offered a fresh perspective as she explored what it means to be human.

Zena Chlarson, the oldest of five children, was born in 1917 in Tucson, Arizona. As a young woman, she pursued a bachelor of arts in education from Arizona State College, and taught mostly in the Tucson area. During World War II, she taught at Gila River Relocation Center, a Japanese internment camp in Sacaton, AZ. In 1944, she married a miner named Richard H. Henderson, but their marriage did not last and ended in 1951. After this, she changed her first name to ‘Zenna’, completed her master’s degree at Arizona State and, in the late-1950s, worked on a US Military base in France. After returning the United States, she taught at The Seaside, a tuberculosis sanatorium for children located in Connecticut.

Henderson’s love of science fiction had begun at the age of 12, and continued with her as she pursued her teaching career. Her first science fiction story, “Come On, Wagon!,” appeared in the December 1951 issue of Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and, in 1959, her story “Captivity” received a Hugo nomination.

Henderson’s experiences as a teacher would influence her writing throughout her career. In her 1952 short story “Ararat”, aliens marooned on Earth are searching for a new teacher to guide their children; all the other teachers have been scared away by the children’s telekinetic powers. This story was the first in a series that featured ‘The People’, a community of gentle humanoids trying to survive on Earth.

The People are isolated, lonely individuals seeking safety and community, and they must suppress their inherent gifts in order to be accepted by human society. Instead of focusing on conquest and war, Henderson’s stories examine the quiet, personal lives of The People. She explores the relationships between the alien women and human women, who use discussion and co-operation to solve conflicts. For example, in “Subcommittee”, the wife of a human general befriends an alien mother and child. As they share skills like knitting and cooking, the human woman discovers that the aliens require salt to survive: this has been the root of human-alien strife. Using discussion and empathy, they’re able to find resolution and avert a potential crisis.

Henderson’s work has been labelled as pre-feminist, and while many of her female characters fall into stereotypical 1950s roles, she portrays a wide range of ages and personalities without falling into overused tropes and 2-dimensional roles. Her experience of working with children heavily influenced her ideas of belonging and camaraderie, and how difficult it can be to feel like one is outside the group. Raised as a Mormon, Henderson left the Church of Latter Day Saints to marry a Methodist, and this may have influenced her ideas on ostracism, too. Many of her stories explore the dangers of being different in an uncaring world, and she often highlights the importance of community and of patient communication.

A common theme in her work is a child with extraordinary powers, discovered by a caring teacher through observation. A fine example of this is Henderson’s short story, “The Anything Box”. An elementary school teacher notices that one of her students, a quiet and withdrawn girl named Sue-Lynn, is captivated by an item in her hands. The girl is holding the Anything Box, a container in which the viewer can see that which is most beautiful to them. When the teacher stares into the seemingly-harmless box, she realizes its power is dangerous: the viewer is distracted by what they can see but never have. The desire to leave reality and stare forever at the imaginary is too seductive.

When she wrote ‘The Anything Box’ in the early 1960s, Zenna Henderson was an elementary school-teacher living in a small Arizona town, and one wonders if her own hopes, dreams, and fortitude were reflected in the short story. Henderson’s tales are haunting and poignant, sometimes frightening, but always thought-provoking with a deep sense of longing.

In an era when most science fiction was action-packed, male-dominated, and often devoid of women, Henderson’s stories provided a remarkable departure. Her tales are not set on far-away planets full of thrills and conflict. Instead, through her imagination, Zenna Henderson explores an equally improbably landscape where diverse people are caring, compassionate and co-operative, and put aside all differences to work towards peace.

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