Ingathering: The Complete People Stories by Zenna Henderson (NESFA Press, 1995)
In the days of my youth, to use a common expression of my father’s, I was quite a science fiction fan. My tastes were almost exclusively for what I’d call hard science stories—those in which the science was paramount, and reasonably accurate—from authors like Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Robert Heinlein. But I made a few exceptions, and among my very favorites were Zenna Henderson’s fantasy stories about The People.
The People are beings from another planet who become stranded on Earth around the end of the 19th century. They are indistinguishable from Earth humans, except for their many special powers, such as lifting (flying), healing, and nonverbal communication. Henderson's stories were published individually, then gathered together into books with connecting stories woven around them (Pilgrimage: The Book of the People, and The People: No Different Flesh). Ingathering includes all these stories, plus a few more from other sources.
I once had four of Zenna Henderson's books, but in a fit of foolish decluttering I gave away my two least favorites. (Henderson's People stories are excellent, but some of her others are a bit weird.) I don't mean the decluttering is foolish, but the mistake I made was in thinking that there was no point in keeping books I could get out of the library. Let the library be my storage site! That was a good idea, but did not take into account our library's even more foolish idea that it should only be a repository for new and popular books. Instead of seeing themselves as a storehouse of treasures old and new, they focus on books that are easy to find elsewhere and get rid of those that are hard to find but less popular. Very short-sighted, I think. That's when I radically slowed down my book-paring, when I learned that I would have to be my own museum.
I recently re-read Pilgrimage and No Different Flesh, and discovered that my copies were disintegrating. I had hoped to purchase versions for my Kindle, but there are none to be had. Fortunately, I found Ingathering on amazon.com and snatched it up.
Not only did I now have the stories preserved in a form that was not crumbling in my hands, but—wonder of wonders—included were four People stories that were new to me. To have even one new People story after all these years!
I understand the impulse to want to tie all the stories together, but re-reading them with an eye toward introducing them to others makes me realize the weakness of the "interlude" stories, at least the first one. The original tales stand well on their own, and that's the way I encountered my first one, Pottage. It's one of the best, and so impressed me that when I encountered it again much later I didn't find the interlude stories a bother. As a first-timer, I might have been tempted to say the book gets off to a slow start.
Not all the stories are of the same caliber, but most are good and some are great. In the introduction to Ingathering, I learned that Henderson's stories are today considered sentimental, even mawkish. How sad for this generation! Must everything be edgy, sad, and disturbing? Henderson's writing is well-crafted, and her fantasy is believable: that is, consistent within its own parameters, and having characters whose emotions and reactions we can understand. The best of the stories are far from sentimental: they are sublime. Beautiful, uplifting, and they pass my own personal test—they make me want to be a better person.