I both love and dread reading British author James Herriot. I love him because I consider him to be one of the greatest writers of all time. And I dread reading him, because any story of his that features a dog or cat will make me cry. Since I usually listen to his books on audio with the rest of the family, this means a lot of discreet eye-wiping and some flat out bawling into my coloring book.
James Herriot’s books begin with All Creatures Great And Small. As a newly released veterinarian student, he trots into the countryside to get a position with Siegfried, an eccentric blowhard who never admits when he’s wrong, and his brother Tristan, a “lazy sod” more interested in pranking the neighbors than pulling his own weight.
Throughout the books, James comes up against some puzzling animal cases, shares laugh-out-loud stories of demented pet owners, erratic animal behaviors, and tackles mystifying medical mysteries. He meets and falls in love with his wife, Helen… and he goes off to war. Some stories, such as the tale of the dog who continually “sneaked up” on people, scared them half to death, and then fled “laughing all the way,” will make you smile; others, which include the loss of beloved animals, and an instance where James and his wife must return an adopted cat they’ve fallen in love with, will leave you in tears. Herriot knows how to tug your heartstrings and make his characters unforgettable. He turns them into your friends with a single chapter.
The world had changed by the 1970s, when Herriot (whose real name was James Alfred Wright) wrote his books about the 1940s, and to a modern reader, it has altered even more. In our time, we hear all the time that to be a responsible pet owner, you need to spay or neuter your pet—in the 1940s, this was not a common practice and never occurs to Herriot as he goes about his business (except in one humorous instance in which he wanted to neuter a dog with “problems” in his parts; the owner pitched a fit and endured the mortifying aftermath of his male dog seeming to be “in heat”). Herriot speaks warmly of cats, and states that the public perception of cats, much to his delight, was “changing.” Instead of farmers seeing them as a nuisance, or chasing them off, or throwing things at them, more and more people were loving them.
He talks about the decline of using horses to farm with, and the rise of the machine which led to draft horses becoming a replaceable commodity. Though Harriet was never very comfortable tending horses (he left that to Siegfried), this dramatic shift in the fabric of British life made him sad. Later books delve into his stint in the military, though thankfully he saw no service on the front lines (something he hated at the time, but no doubt felt grateful for later; unlike his peers, he did not return home war-scarred, though he came home less a few teeth thanks to the hellish “army dentist”).
Told in the form of short stories, James introduces us to, and makes us love, his cast of eccentric and memorable local characters, from a man who lives in a tent (his only companion a much-beloved tiny cat) to Tristan, his often “partner in crime” and local hoodlum. He revisits certain figures multiple times, such as the larger-than-life animal surgeon several towns over who can literally drink Herriot under the table. And considering his awful first impression on Helen, he marvels along with the rest of us that she ever gave him a second chance.
Many stories set in the 1940’s focus on the horrors and hardships of war, and that’s fitting… but if you want a different story, one filled with piglets and farm dogs and the occasional violent snowstorm on the heath, James Herriot is just your ticket into the past. He captures a changing world, a bygone era, and the “early years” of veterinary practice, some of whose techniques he was glad to see fall by the wayside in the light of modern medicines.
Translated into many languages and sold all over the world, James Herriot’s stories live on… and will soon come to the small screen. The BBC has announced its intention for a full season in 2020, including a Christmas special. If it follows the books, it’ll be a heartwarming glimpse into the past. Now would be a great time to check out the books. Just pack the tissues. Every other story will hit your feels.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Charity Bishop devotes her free time to eating chocolate, debating theology with her friends, researching the Tudors, writing books, blogging, and searching for spiritual truth in all aspects of life.