In All Creatures Great and Small, we meet the young Herriot as he takes up his calling and discovers that the realities of veterinary practice in rural Yorkshire are very different from the sterile setting of veterinary school. From caring for his patients in the depths of winter on the remotest homesteads to dealing with uncooperative owners and critically ill animals, Herriot discovers the wondrous variety and never-ending challenges of veterinary practice as his humor, compassion, and love of the animal world shine forth. (Goodreads)
Reviewed by Laura Madsen
I’ve just reread All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot (1972). James Herriot (real name: James Alfred Wight) was a veterinarian in rural Yorkshire in the 1930’s. He wrote a series of memoirs of veterinary life, published from the 1970’s through 90’s. I first read the series in high school, then reread it soon after graduating from vet school.
Herriot makes writing seem easy. Reading his stories is like sitting around a cozy fireplace listening to a kindly fellow telling stories. His phrasing seems effortless, but every word and sentence is precise, as in, “I pulled out the syringe box and selected a wide-bored needle. My fingers, numb with the special kind of cold you felt in the early morning with your circulation sluggish and your stomach empty, could hardly hold it.” (That brings back unpleasant memories of the profound exhaustion of midnight emergency calls.)
Each chapter is only a few pages long, a vignette of a particular patient or client. Although he talks about medical issues, the stories are more about the people—their personalities, attitudes toward their animals, and relationships with family and neighbors. For example, one chapter is framed around an old dog in congestive heart failure, but the real spirit of the story centers on the dog’s owner, a little old lady whose love of her pets—and Herriot’s assurance that animals have souls—help her find the courage to face her looming mortality.
The descriptions of place are beautiful, as in this passage:
I realised, quite suddenly, that spring had come. It was late March and I had been examining some sheep in a hillside fold. On my way down, in the lee of a small pine wood I leaned my back against a tree and was aware, all at once, of the sunshine, warm on my closed eyelids, the clamour of the larks, the muted sea-sound of the wind in the high branches. And though the snow still lay in long runnels behind the walls and the grass was lifeless and winter-yellowed, there was a feeling of change; almost of liberation, because, unknowing, I had surrounded myself with a carapace against the iron months, the relentless cold.
As a veterinarian, I also love to read Herriot because I’ve encountered many of the same situations with my patients and clients. It doesn’t matter that he practiced large animal medicine in England in the 1930’s while I’m practicing small animal medicine in America in the 2010’s—people and animals are the same all over.
The opening line is: “They didn’t say anything about this in the books, I thought, as the snow blew in through the gaping doorway and settled on my naked back.” (He’s pulled off his shirt to reach deep into a cow to deliver a stuck calf.) Yup. I can think of hundreds of situations when I thought, They didn’t teach me this in vet school. Like, how do you repair a lacerated tongue on a cockatoo? How do you treat a seagull with head trauma? What do you do when a scared feral cat is running amok in your surgery suite?
Recommended for anyone who loves animals, England, or plain old good writing.
Market: Adult nonfiction, memoir
Sensuality: none, except for some chaste courting of his wife-to-be
Adult themes: life and death