there is sometime among children another seeingness — a seeing that goes beyond the range of adult eyes, that sometimes seem to trespass even on other dimensions. (‘Turn The Page’)
The 14 stories collected in The Anything Box almost all feature children in some kind of relationship to a parent or teacher. From the title story onwards teachers observe children with some form of magic, some way of seeing a different world, or of influencing the world, that is denied or lost to adults.
Henderson is probably best remembered for ‘The People’ stories about a community of aliens crashlanded on Earth and hiding out in the South West USA. The Anything Box stories share some similarities of setting, and scenarios, but are significantly darker and less sentimental in most cases. The sometimes twee moralising of The People’s secretive interactions with humans is replaced here with more tragic consequences. In ‘Come On, Wagon’ when Thaddeus is told he can’t use unexplained powers that he used to move his toy wagon, eventually life comes full circle and he no longer has the ability which would save his Uncle’s life. In ‘The Last Step’ the teacher interrupts the children’s game, only to realise later that their game was a premonition of reality, and they have no escape because the game was terminated.
Although children are at the centre of these stories the focus is repeatedly on the power of imagination:
‘When I was in the first grade, my teacher was magic’ (Turn The Page)
‘Imagination is an invaluable asset. It is, I might say, one of the special blessing bestowed upon mankind.’ (The Last Step)
‘Too young to learn that heart’s desire is only play-like’ (The Anything Box)
‘Magic, us old-timers would call it. Dunno what you empty, don’t-believe-nothing-without-touch-it-taste-it-hear-it-proof younguns would call it.’ (The Grunder)
Written in the 1950s, published between 1951 and 1962, these stories have an innocence of telling on the surface, but their own magic in part through Henderson’s charmingly regional voice. It is often said that SF has very few regional writers, but Zenna Henderson’s native Arizona and Southern California is clear in some of these stories. In a couple of cases they remind me of the great RA Lafferty, (though they pre-date his first publications) in their inventive, quirky language, (‘Things’) and their emphasis on the power of language precisely used (‘The Last Step’, ‘Hush!’) As a member of the Church of Latter Day Saints Henderson is often mentioned as an influence on Orson Scott Card an others, but there is no sign here of the more dubious imagery of some Mormon writers. If anyone the more recent writer I see in ‘Walking Aunt Daid’ is Nicholas Fisk, and in ‘Turn The Page’ possibly the Kelly Link of ‘The Faery Handbag.’
Henderson may not be a religious zealot, though there are touches of spirituality in her stories, but she is a passionate proselyte in her own way:
I can see that you haven’t forgotten the lessons she taught you. Only you have remembered the wrong part. You only half learned the lessons. You’ve eaten the husks and thrown the grain away. She tried to tell you. She tried to teach you. But you’ve all forgotten. Not a one of you remembers that if you turn the page everyone will live happily ever after, because it was written that way. You’re all stranded in the introduction to the story. (‘Turn The Page’)
Another aspect of Henderson’s writing, according to her wikipedia entry is that ‘her work could not be considered feminist’ but the petty arguments between Crae and Ellena in ‘The Grunder’ and his irrational jealousies are foregrounded and highlighted. The best story here, ‘Subcommittee’ looks like an obvious tale of human and alien children learning to play which eventually teaches their military parents to co-operate too. Alongside this however, Henderson demonstrates the dismissive ignorance of domestic reality in the military husband. Elsewhere there are hints of patronising behaviour in male Head Teachers to females, and so on. Henderson, as noted, came from a conservative background and was writing at a time when outright feminism was not visible in SF,so perhaps these little touches were what she was able to offer?
Overall, The Anything Box is an enjoyable collection with an angry undercurrent. It’s occasional lapses into sentimental views of childhood are a product of its time, and tempered by a cynical tone in some of the adults. (Two stories open in almost identical words, ‘I don’t like kids’ and ‘I don’t like children.’) Time has taken its toll on Zenna Henderson’s work, as with most of her contemporaries, but her best work remains interesting, slightly charming and shouldn’t be forgotten. She tried to tell you. She tried to teach you.