Thursday, October 12, 2006

All Creatures Great and Small, by James Herriot

Title: All Creatures Great and Small
Author: James Herriot

It’s been a long and stressful day. Much of it I spent staring rather wild-eyed at my glowing computer screen. I’m currently feeling perfectly misanthropic and combative. So to fight back all these bad demons, I rifled through my “To Review” stack of books tonight. I needed something soothing and comforting to review. I needed something nice.

There wasn’t much competition – James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small is probably the most genuinely heart-warming book I’ve read in years.

Herriot’s classic semi-autobiographical tale simply defies cynicism and sarcasm. He spent about fifty years practicing veterinarian medicine in the Yorkshire Dales, and this book tells the story of his adventures those first few years. Each chapter is essentially a small short story relating a particular humorous or touching incident. The writing is good, solid English, very easy to sink down into and forget yourself for a few hours.

All Creatures opens with a rather surprising image – Herriot is shirtless and laying in a puddle of dirt and blood and various nauseating fluids. For hours he’s been in that position…with his arm shoved in a cow’s birthing canal up to his shoulder, trying to turn around a baby calf so it can be born.

They didn’t say anything about this in the books, he thinks in disbelief.

It sounds disgusting. And no doubt there are some sections in this book that will make delicate stomachs squirm. But it’s all honestly charming. Herriot is good-natured, kind, and funny, and it shows in his writing. And even though the novel is set in 1930s Yorkshire, I related to the young vet’s struggles with his new profession. Like all of us, he wrestles with the sudden onset of real responsibility, the vagaries and inconsistencies of his new boss, and trying to figure what it’s all about really.

Along the way, the reader meets the unique Yorkshire people and traipses with Herriot through the beautiful English moors. He has a true affection for the farmers he serves, and they’re all wonderful characters in their own right. And then there are the animals – cows, horses, pigs, sheep, dogs, cats. They’re fun to get to know, too.

If you haven’t read this book yet, I’d suggest saving it for a snowy day when you have absolutely nothing to do. Snuggle down in some old flannel pajamas and make sure there’s a pair of warm slippers on your feet. Build a fire, and have a cup of steaming tea nearby so you can hold it in your hands and blink while you stare philosophically into the flames. Wrap a quilt around your shoulders and let Herriot take you back to the 1930s English countryside and its good-natured inhabitants – both human and animal. It may not really have been a simpler, better time to live, but the illusion is beautiful, and it’s not one that I’m particularly eager to break.

I’ll finish with a quote from the book, which when I read it definitely made my heart ache…if only a wee bit.

Throwing wide my arms I wriggled my shoulders and my sweat-soaked shirt into the tough grass and let the sweet breeze play over me. With the sun on my face I looked through half-closed eyes at the hazy-blue sky.

My ribs ached and I could feel the bruises of a dozen kicks on my legs. I knew I didn’t smell so good either. I closed my eyes and grinned at the ridiculous thought that I had been conducting a diagnostic investigation for tuberculosis back there. A strange way to carry out a scientific procedure; a strange way, in fact, to earn a living.

But then I might have been in an office with the windows tight shut against the petrol fumes and the traffic noise, the desk light shining on the column of figures, my bowler hat hanging on the wall.

Lazily I opened my eyes again and watched a cloud shadow riding over the face of the green hill across the valley. No, no…I wasn’t complaining.

I loved that.

posted by Elizabeth at 8:44 PM


Blogger Kat said...

I read this one back in middle school or high school. Read several of Herriot's books in fact, and loved them. You should read the others sometime in the setting you described - book, tea, blanket, fire, etc.

10/17/2006 2:28 PM  

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