Pilgrimage

by Zenna Henderson

Cover image

Series: The People #1
Publisher: Avon
Copyright: 1961
Printing: November 1963
ISBN: 0-380-01507-2
Format: Mass market
Pages: 255

Buy at Powell's Books

Zenna Henderson's People stories fall into that category that the science fiction genre seems to create so well: stories that didn't reach the level of popular acclaim to keep them in print or well-known today, but keep being mentioned and remembered by people who happened across them. They're the sort of work that NESFA Press does such an excellent job of reprinting, and indeed Ingathering showed up in 1995. That edition (or the SF Book Club edition that matches it) are the most likely place to find these stories now, outside of a forgotten corner of a used bookstore.

Pilgrimage opens with Lea, a desperate and depressed woman who has just run away from everything in life and has finally made the decision to kill herself. She's interrupted and rescued by a woman who has supernatural abilities, who is relentlessly cheerful, and who can hold Lea's depression at bay for a while via apparently magical means. She's brought to a gathering of others, who turn out to be aliens fleeing a cataclysm who were scattered on Earth in a crash of their ship, and who are now retelling their stories of loneliness and reunion. Night after night, the history of the People unfolds in short stories while Lea uses the emotions and sense of connection to get in control of her own feelings.

The tradition to which the People are a precursor seems to show up as often in movies as written SF: Starman, Alien Nation, and Escape to Witch Mountain (the 1975 movie or the book) all come easily to mind as comparisons. For humans to know about the aliens is dangerous, since humans are cruel and superstitious and will hunt things they don't understand. But the aliens are just like us, only blessed with special powers and longing for community and reunion with their own kind.

Henderson's world-building is more mystical than scientific, and the tropes she uses match the 1950s dates of most of the original short stories. The People's powers are the standard mix of unexplained telepathy, empathy, telekinesis, flight, and the like typical of both aliens and the next stage of advancement of humans so common before mental powers dropped out of vogue. Her use of made-up words for the different abilities, natural tendencies towards one ability or another, and occasional hints at the possibility of a deeper rational structure help, but it's hard to read about the People with a modern SF sensibility and find them believable aliens.

If you can put that aside, though, Henderson's strength is her ability to write raw emotion and surround it with a mystical sense of belonging. The most memorable aspect of the People is their racial memory of Home, the destroyed planet they were fleeing, which Henderson deftly avoids ruining with too much description. Their memories are of majesty, beauty, and happiness, and all of Henderson's portrayals of their technology (including ships when they finally appear) has the same sense of mystical awe. If you look too close, the science doesn't hold up, but if you avoid analyzing, the sense of wonder comes through.

The stories are almost uniformly about being lost, alone, misunderstood, hunted, and endangered, about thinking oneself insane or broken, and about the glory of finding another or a whole community who understands and welcomes you. Here too, Henderson is covering well-trod ground in SF, but she does it with such a warm heart and such obvious joy and love for her characters that her telling seems fresh. Lea's framing story was, ironically, the least believable of the emotional storms and triumphs in the book, in part because it's too ungrounded in specific problems and behaviors that Lea has to address. The other stories have more specific trouble, challenges of trust or courage or simple persistance and characters who are so kind and clearly good that one can't help but root for them. If you're in the mood for world-weary cynicism, this is definitely not the book to read.

Henderson was, outside of her writing, a teacher, generally of elementary school, and most of her characters share the same perception. It's high praise from me, given my normal preferences, that I enjoyed reading about the children in Pilgrimage. They're as interesting, challenging, and troubled as the adults, while still staying children. Henderson treats their stories with respect and neither writes them as miniature adults or as adult fantasies of children, which is all too rare.

Pilgrimage is best read with a different set of expectations than most SF and a willingness to read past a lack of realistic grounding for the sense of wonder and delight in love, friendship, and community that are the true core of the story. It is, to some extent, a wish-fulfillment fantasy: loneliness, isolation, and a sense of being different than all the people around may be cured by discovering one day that one is a part of a wonderful community of fellow aliens who can teach special powers. But Henderson is good enough at writing emotions that she mostly pulls it off.

Followed by The People: No Different Flesh.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2008-05-28

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21