Thursday, March 7, 2013

All Creatures Great and Small

I've wanted to give this book a review for quite a while, but was unsure how to do it, since I really can't give it a full endorsement. However, I think it is profitable to discuss such books on occasion, so I've decided to go through with it and present the pros and cons together. In general I like to keep my reviews clear-cut between "recommended" and "not recommended", but in this instance the book I chose falls into neither category. I would probably call it "recommended to certain ages with strong cautions".

So here we go.

I was thirteen or fourteen when a set of lovely fat hardbacks introduced me to James Herriot, one of the most entertaining authors I have ever read. For decades his adventures as a country vet inspired tears and laughter in myriads of readers, a magic which lasted through time, for they are just as engaging today as they were when he first published them. How much is true and how much is fiction I couldn't say, but I've eaten up most of what Herriot wrote, and even on one occasion procured a tape of his stories read by himself. There's a thick accent for British fans.

After a brief hiatus due to the language, I returned to him last year and re-discovered the wonder. It's a gritty wonder, for Herriot certainly doesn't  romanticize  getting out of bed and lathering up in a country barnyard at 4:00 a.m. In fact, I told my mother I thought I had a pretty good idea of how to birth a calf by the time I was done with it. Probably not, but due to his explicit descriptions I felt as if I did.

Birthing cows aren't his only adventures--caring for Mrs. Pumphrey's Tricki Woo, adjusting to his new supervisor Siegfried Farnon, and trying to establish a relationship with pretty Helen sprinkle the pages with laughter and lightness. I don't know what his spiritual beliefs were, but he touches briefly on the issue of animals going to heaven throughout his books, and from the perspective of a vet, his words hold a powerful pull. 

I've never been a big animal person. Living in the middle of the city, the most you'll have to fend off are chihuahuas at the supermarket.  (A slight exaggeration, I suppose. We have collies, too.) The dogs I knew as a child were always big and loud and terrifying, and pretty much the only thing I liked was a cat. But gradually, after losing our cat and meeting some dogs that didn't try to devour me at first sight, I grew more comfortable with the animal kind, and I think his books had something to do with that. They come alive in his stories, giving rise to a thought that there's probably more to the theology of animals than the church has explored thus far.

We live in a culture that worships animals, and to compensate for that, some of us have swung the pendulum all the way to the opposite side, myself included. Evolution is to blame for that as well. But I think, even though I don't belief we're descended from animals, they still have personalities, sufferings, enjoyment, and emotional reactions (to some extent). They even have communication. And so I think we can take some valuable lessons from their existence, as well as procure infinite love and enjoyment from their care.

But ask the beasts, and they will teach you;
the birds of the heavens, and they will tell you;
or the bushes of the earth, and they will teach you;
and the fish of the sea will declare to you.
Who among all these does not know
that the hand of the Lord has done this?
In his hand is the life of every living thing
and the breath of all mankind.
-Job 12:7-10
The Book
Not long before World War Two, James Herriot graduated from medical school and took a position as veterinary assistant to Siegfried Farnon. In a time where most young vets weren't finding work, Herriot counted himself fortunate to secure a position in the Yorkshire Dales, and after he arrived, he realised that he hadn't even begun to fathom his blessings. From sweeping views to stolid farmers, he found himself growing attached to the little community that looked indifferently upon the march of progress.
His first year, however, was not without difficulties. An absent-minded employer, Siegfried often left him to coast down the steep Yorkshire hills without breaks instead of fixing them. Farmers looked with skepticism upon his new-fangled remedies, and preferred the butcher's wives'-tales to his advanced arts. And when love came his way, Herriot managed to bungle just about every opportunity.
All Creatures Great and Small captures his first two years in the Yorkshire Dales, with a gritty charm that only animal stories can bring.

My Thoughts
Herriot (who's real name was James Alfred Wight) practiced in Thirsk, Yorkshire. While many of the details are true, the chronological events of the various animal cases are fictionalized. Most of the cases he wrote as taking place in the 30s and 40s actually occured in the 60s and 70s. His employer (who's actual name was Donald Sinclair) didn't particularly like Herriot's humorous accounts of his absent-mindedness, and called the books "a real test of our friendship." But according to Farnon's colleagues and Herriot's son, Herriot actually toned down the adaptation of his employer's eccentricities. Siegfried's younger brother Tristan was Brian Sinclair in real life. Brian enjoyed Herriot's portrayal of his character, even though he was a smoking, drinking college student always goofing off.
Combine a high-strung employer with an irresponsible younger brother, and sparks flew in pretty much every chapter. While many of the arguments have you rolling in your seat with laughter, neither Siegfried nor Tristan kept their language clean, and James often didn't either in the stress of the moment. In fact, on a level of 5, I would give it a 3.5 for intensity and words used. I've just finished editing my copy, though I had to take it slowly because of that, and I give a strong warning on this score. In this instance I decided to edit, but in another I might decide to get rid of the book altogether. It depends on the quality of the story, and be aware of this when you decide whether or not to read it. Due to the amount and type of language used, I do not give this book my full recommendation.
If you've grown up in the city, like I did, then you probably don't know most of the Life Facts presented in this book. Anatomy, medical care, etc. are stated with honesty. It's not rude, but it's real. However, if you've grown up in the country or bred animals, you probably know what is in here. It's the kind of information that I would call PG-13, and I recommend it for 15 on up.
There's a heavy amount of beer drinking, mostly during a companionable visit and not on a drinking orgies. However, I did skip one chapter when James and Tristan go out with two nurses to a dance. It wasn't worth it.
Herriot's poignancy and characterization are real gems. Both the people and the events take on a reality that attaches you to them, and you really do feel like you've visited the Yorkshire Dales by the time you're done. His ability to capture caricatures is hilarious, and he constantly has you doubled over in mirth. Laughter doeth good like medicine. In fact, I think the best thing about his book is his ability to portray emotion: love, sorrow, sweetness, inconsistencies, stubbornness, and character, shine through the each page and offer myriads of quotables.

It is a heartwarming story, as the covers say. Though I wouldn't give it my entire endorsement, I think it offers both entertainment and edification when properly handled.

If you want an introduction to him without the language and honest facts, try starting out with James' Herriot's Treasury for Children, a book full of lovely stories adapted for young people (but far from childish). Animal lovers of all ages will enjoy them, and they were a special favorite of Junior B.'s when she was younger.

And now I would love to hear your impressions! Have you read the book, and if so, what did you think of it?

Lady Bibliophile 


  1. Oh, that book sounds so much fun! Being an animal lover, I'd like to read it when I get older. ;) Does he have any stories about cats?! :D
    And I love the children's book, too. It has such wonderful stories and good illustrations. :D
    Excellent post!
    Love, Sister

    1. Dear Sister,
      He has a few about cats, but the majority of them are about cows. ;) I have read "The Christmas Day Kitten" in one of his adult books, though. :)

      Love and cuddles,

  2. I've heard a lot about James Herriot especially from my friends though I have not personally read any of his books. They sound fascinating though! I don't like too much coarse language (particularly if they take the Lord's name in vain), however my more important worry would be the indecent stuff e.g. dance with nurses etc...

    Is there a lot of that in the book?

    1. Dear Joy,
      Yes, there's a lot of misuse of the Lord's name, and that's what I was concerned about. As far as the dancing, well it depends on what you mind--they go out on a lot of Saturday night movie dates, and Tristan is known for liking a lot of dating. It's a very similar type of thing to that found in the Andy Griffith show, (if you watch retro TV! :) But there's no mention of extremely immoral behavior

      Hope that helps!

  3. Hi Lady B. :)

    I don't read that book, but, about your comment of the nurses ... In the Bible we read about adultery, incest, they are sins of course. All the scripture is for instruction (obviously) and we don't escape to read about the daughters of Lot, David and Betsabe, Sodoma and Gomorra, etc.

    Sorry if my english is incorrect (itsn't my language), but I need to express muy point.

    Pd.: About your question in a past post, yes I read Miguel Strogoff :), my brother bought the book and when he finished to read I began with the story and I love it :D.

    1. Dear Claudia,
      You are right, and you make a very good point. I think it's important that we don't try to avoid all sin in the books we read, because God portrays sin in the Bible as well. :)

      I'm reading Miguel Strogoff to my family right now--your comment made me remember it, and I thought they would all enjoy it! It's been fun to read it again.


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