Birthday Reviews: Zenna Henderson’s “Trouble of the Water”
Zenna Henderson was born on November 1, 1917 and died on May 11, 1983.
Henderson was nominated for the Hugo Award in 1959 for her novelette “Captivity,” one of the stories in her The People series. Her story “Porrage” was made into a television film starring William Shatner in 1972, and “Hush” was adapted for an episode of Tales from the Darkside.
“Troubling of the Water” was originally published in the September 1966 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, edited by Edward L. Ferman. Henderson included it in her collection The People: No Different Flesh the following year. In 1973, it was translated into Japanese and in 1993, it was translated into Italian by Giuliano Acunzoli. The story was most recently included in the NESFA Press volume Ingathering: The Complete People Stories, edited by Mark and Priscilla Olson.
Henderson’s People stories are quite different. “Troubling the Water” is set on a nineteenth century ranch in an area suffering a long drought. Access to water has become a major issue, but while most modern science fiction dealing with lack of water would use it as the basis for conflict over water rights, the characters in Henderson’s story use it to support each other and build a community.
In “Troubling of the Water,” Barney and his Father see a meteorite fall to Earth on their property. Set in the nineteenth century in a rural backwater, they are surprised to find a burnt and blinded boy at the site of the meteorite strike. The bring him back home and begin to nurse him back to health, eventually naming him Timothy. It becomes clear to Barney’s father and eventually to Barney that Timothy was not a boy struck by a meteorite, but rather an alien who had come to Earth. Through touching Barney and forging a link with the boy, Timothy is eventually able to learn to speak and learn of the family’s need for water.
Timothy has the ability to dowse, although it isn’t clear to the family what he is doing other than digging a big hole in their yard. While Barney trusts his new friend, his father is less open to the possibility that Timothy is helping. The story follows the family’s need to find a source of water even as other local sources run dry, and Barney’s burgeoning relationship with Timothy. Timothy is eventually able to share his entire story, as well as the loneliness he feels being separated from the rest of his species, just one of many of Henderson’s People who have come to Earth to escape their own planet’s destruction.
The story is leisurely, reflecting the pace of life in the period and the setting. Henderson allows Barney to learn about Timothy’s abilities and origins in a natural way. The boy’s acceptance of the alien’s help, even in the face of his father’s skepticism is shown not as a moment of rebellion, but rather as an instance of maturity and growth.
Reprint reviewed in the collection Ingathering: Complete People Stories, by Zenna Henderson, edited by Mark & Priscilla Olson, NESFA Press, 1995.
Steven H Silver is a sixteen-time Hugo Award nominee and was the publisher of the Hugo-nominated fanzine Argentus as well as the editor and publisher of ISFiC Press for 8 years. He has also edited books for DAW and NESFA Press. He began publishing short fiction in 2008 and his most recently published story is “Webinar: Web Sites” in The Tangled Web. Steven has chaired the first Midwest Construction, Windycon three times, and the SFWA Nebula Conference 6 times, as well as serving as the Event Coordinator for SFWA. He was programming chair for Chicon 2000 and Vice Chair of Chicon 7. He has been the news editor for SF Site since 2002.