James Herriot is a master storyteller. Today I’m reviewing the 20th anniversary edition of his book All Creatures Great and Small, which is subtitled “the warm and joyful memoirs of an animal doctor”. In this first memoir of several, Herriot shares how he became a veterinarian assistant and all the adventures this occupation entails. His stories are funny, gritty, riveting, eye-opening, and a host of other positive adjectives. I’ve enjoyed reading Herriot’s memoir this week, as much I did when I first discovered it as a young person.
When I initially read All Creatures Great and Small, the animal stories are why I liked it. One that appears frequently is that of Tricki, a Pekingese dog, who is owned an elderly widow by the name of Ms. Pumphrey. She dotes on Tricki so much that she overfeeds him. And she doesn’t just overfeed him dog food or even meat scraps. No, this dog also receives cake and other sweets. Because of Herriot’s respectful care of Tricki, he earns the prestigious title of Uncle, with which comes various favors including invitations to parties.
There are numerous other memorable animal stories too. Some our sad, such as that of a widower whose fourteen-year-old dog is his best friend. The dog’s swollen abdomen is due to inoperable cancer. Others are happier, such as that of the young farmer whose livelihood depended on a cow who had developed a bad case of summer mastitis. After a night of having her udder massaged every thirty minutes, along with other care, the cow surprises everyone by returning to normal health. Finally, some stories just show the varied nature of being a vet. For example, there’s the incident where Herriot proclaims a cow to have a broken pelvis and not capable of ever walking again, only to have the cow walking about the next morning in the fields as if nothing had ever been wrong. Or there’s the incident where a farmer tries to get Herriot to sign a statement that said his cow had died from lightning, when clearly she died of heart failure. There are many priceless tales!
Upon my recent rereading of All Creatures Great and Small, I found it to be as rich in stories about people as animals. In 1937, there was usually two or three vacancies with an average of eighty applicants for each one. For that reason, Herriot feels appreciative and excited about the opportunity to interview for an assistant position in the country. He spends the drive to his interview trying to imagine his prospective new boss. Once he arrives, however, he finds that the employee has left to visit his mother. He waits a couple of hours, during which time various clients come by to call on the doctor, before Mr. Farnon actually returns. The whole situation makes Herriot wonder if a joke was being played on him.
There are numerous other memorable characters too. An outstanding one is Mr. Farnon, who hates to admit to mistakes. When Herriot and Farnon receive a call to visit a neighbor, they argue over the correct name. Farnon turns out to be the one in the wrong, but instead he admonishes Herriot to be more careful in the future. Similar situations repeatedly happen. Farnon more than once blames Herriot for an incorrect diagnosis or for a careless use of the practice’s car. Another outstanding example is Tristan, who is Mr. Farnon’s brother. After failing his vet exams, Tristan turns up for a visit and never leaves. He then becomes the subject instead of Farnon’s wrath, except the difference is Tristan often deserves it. For example, when the three take on the simple task of raising hens and then pigs, Tristan cann’t even keep the livestock contained in a pen. Finally, there are the locals, many of whom believe that they knew more than the vets, and always enjoy an opportunity to prove the vets wrong.
When I first sat down to write this review, I struggled with deciding on what highlights to share. There are so many excellent qualities about Herriot’s memoir, including simply how well he writes. His stories foreshadow what lies ahead, hold conflict and no easy solutions, offer food for thought, and finally just simply entertain. I’m eager to have time to reread the rest of Herriot’s memoirs!
Reprinted from Allison’s Book Bag. This article is original in content and not to be reproduced without permission. Copyright 2015.