I first laughed my way through James Herriot’s All Creatures Great And Small more than 40 years ago, and over the next decade or so I’d devour all the books that followed—along the beautifully dutiful depictions of them in the 90-episode PBS TV series—with undiminished joy. But it’s been 20 years or more since I last read the Herriot’s works, even though the hard-backed originals rest in a place of honor on my bookshelf.
So it was with genuine excitement that I read the just-released, paperback reprint of the tales first published in 1972. I wondered if they’d been altered or updated at all—and the good news is that they haven’t.
Still there are the laughable tales of the tubby Pekinese Tricky Woo and the so-kindly Mrs. Pumphrey, along with to the bone-chilling and gut-wrenching stories of Herriot delivering cows, sheep, pigs and horses on cold nights in a muddy barnyard or manure-sodden barn, then cleaning himself with only cold water and, maybe, a piece of burlap.
Herriot’s stories, which begin in 1937, paint a picture of the old days of veterinary medicine–days with strange mixtures of chemical compounds or herbs to treat colic or skin diseases and of procedures that today seem almost barbarous. But back then the biggest thing they did was to force rest in working animals, rest that allowed Mother Nature to take her course. Veterinarians then could often do little more.
What makes this first collection and the seven books that followed it so endearing and so enduring?
First, they’re stories about farm animals and house pets and about their eccentricities. And who doesn’t love an animal story?
Second, they’re also stories about people and their lives. We all love reading and hearing stories about people, and Herriot can describe them in a charming way, depicting the people with genuine affection. And, for us Americans, the folks of Darrowby 80 years ago are people of a type that we’ll probably never meet.
Third, and related to that, Herriot’s stories are about a time gone by, a time gone by even in the Yorkshire Dales. It was a time of farmers and their families living close to the land and to their animals. Many paid no attention to the time on a clock—they rose when the sun came up, went to be when it went down, and in between fed themselves and their animals when they were hungry. Mostly they traded with their neighbors for food and the few simple things they needed.
Finally, it’s the story of James Herriot himself. Born in 1916 (he would die in 1995), Herriot was a warm-hearted, generous man who was able to get his dream first job as a veterinarian in the days of the Great Depression, as the early tides of World War II were rolling across continental Europe. In the decades that followed these stories, England, the United States and Europe would change more than they had in the two centuries before. So these stories of the animals and people of Darrowby take us back to a time that is both relatively near and yet very far from today.
Bottom Line: If you’ve read Herriot before, enjoy him again. And entice your children and your friends to read it too.
Best Suited For: Anyone who loves animals.
You’ll Be Disappointed If: You only like to read software manuals or science fiction.
All Creatures Great and Small. by James Herriot. Soft Cover 2014. St. Martin’s Griffin. $15.99.
John Strassburger, Performance Editor