If I had to pick one word with which to describe Zenna Henderson’s writing it would be “gentle”.
That’s weird. Why “gentle”?
Well, she just tells a story. She doesn’t try to overimpress me with crazy plot ideas or whap me in the face with incredoawesomesauce, or push violence or shock value down my throat. She takes me by the hand, quietly smiles, and tells me a story.
Henderson’s genius is her ability to write empathy with her characters. Not sympathy, empathy. I feel their wonder at flying humans, their grief at the loss of a lifetime spouse, their terror of the religious zealots in the next valley.
The People: No Different Flesh is the second book about her “People”, an alien race who come to Earth because their home has been destroyed. These People have powers of levitation, healing and genetic memory. Henderson doesn’t get into the mechanism of how all that works, but it doesn’t really matter.
In No Different Flesh, the People have reunited in the home of one of The People, and are trading stories of what has happened to each of them since finding themselves arrived in the American West, circa 1850. Many of the stories are told from the point-of-view of the humans living in the West, and relate their wonder and amazement upon encountering these human-like but not human beings.
The wonder of it is mine, now. This boy, earlier today skimming water into a tin cup, worried about the orchard living through the summer, now is folding his mind around the impossibility of a man falling from the sky. And not just the sky, but from beyond the sky.
One of my favorite stories is of an unlikeable People, a pissy, self-asbsorbed young female who, through the continued care and altruism of a human couple, becomes a different person, appreciating her own short-sightedness and strives to be more like the human couple who rescued her.
All of the The People that we meet have different personalities, different attributes and strengths. Each instance of story in The People: No Different Flesh, gives us a gentle counterpoise to our own humanity.
Henderson gives me that first time wonder, that shock and fear and mind-blazing awe. Me! Here in the 21st Century for whom aliens are merely a newscast away, amazed.
p.s. I have an extra copy of this. If you would like to borrow it, please let me know. They’re hard to find, and not digitized.