Stories About Belonging

Have you ever felt like an outsider? As though everyone else belonged, fit in with the group, except you?

This is one of the basic human needs. According to Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the need for belonging/love comes after the basic needs for food and safety. We all want to be accepted. This desire is especially strong in teenagers as they are determining their places in the world.

When I was in my teens, a lady at work introduced me to Zenna Henderson’s The People. Ms. Henderson was a female science-fiction author whose first short story was published in 1951, but it was her second short story that started the series for which she’s most known.

“Ararat” first appeared in The Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy in October 1952. It centers around an isolated group in the American Southwest who need a teacher for their one-room schoolhouse. They are very wary of outsiders, but the law requires their children to be educated. This is before the time of the internet. A young woman comes who has been previously dismissed from her other two positions without explanation. The school board is concerned, but they have no choice. Their last several teachers have been so old, they died during the school year—also without explanation.

A wary friendship develops between the female student narrator and the teacher as each notices odd things about the other. Then the teacher and the narrator’s brother fall in love, which can never be.

The group is so isolated because they are alien refugees from another world that was destroyed. Since different is dead, they keep away from Earth’s inhabitants. Their ship was blown up as it entered our atmosphere, and this remnant are the descendants of those who survived. The story’s title “Ararat” references the mountain that Noah’s Ark rested on after the biblical great flood. The ark’s inhabitants were a remnant, too.

Of course, all turns out well in the end. The teacher is discovered to also be an alien, so she and the brother can be together.

This tale begins Ms. Henderson’s series of short stories and novellas that tells about the People and how they attempt to adapt to humanity’s ways. It’s not always easy, since they have telepathy, the ability to fly, and platt (a type of braiding using light to lift things off the ground.) The strong theme running throughout all her stories is the need to belong and acceptance. As a teenager, these stories resonated with me, and I never forgot them.

Recently my husband and I were cleaning off bookshelves, and I found my copy of Ingathering: The Complete People Stories. The author passed away in 1983, but all of the People stories were gathered into this one volume and printed in 1995. There are two different framing tales told around the individual stories. I am fortunate to own a copy of this book. So far, I don’t believe the book is yet available electronically, although one short story “Pottage” was made into a 2008 TV movie called The People starring William Shatner.

Cleaning stopped for the rest of the day as I delved back into these pages. Once again I read about the music, the twirling leaves, and the moonlight dance in the air as depicted in “Captivity.” Once again I sighed over the word picture imprinted on my imagination. Joy and beauty are very difficult for a writer to convey. Often words aren’t enough to contain the emotion, but Ms. Henderson has that talent.

Although her stories about the People are classified as science fiction, these are not technical stories about how the space ships worked. She focused on the emotion of how people lived with knowing a different technology and different background. It’s the emotions of her stories that make them timeless, long after a typical science fiction story would become outdated by technology.