by James Herriot
St. Martin’s Griffin (175 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10010), 1972, 2014 edition.
448 pages, paperback. $15.99.
Reviewed by Debra J. White
James Alfred Wight, 1916-1995, graduated from Glasgow Veterinary College in 1939. He worked as a vet, first in Yorkshire and then in Sunderland, for the rest of his life. Beginning to write at age 50, Wight produced 14 books in the next 28 years under the pen name James Herriot, borrowed from Scottish soccer goalie Jim Herriot.
Well-liked by clients as a skilled, kind and caring vet, Wight went on to entertain and educate millions with his literary talent. Most of his stories combined autobiographical elements with fictionalization, often relocating events in time and place. His first two books, If Only They Could Talk and It Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet, were modest successes in Britain, but soared to worldwide acclaim after his U.S. publisher, St. Martin’s Griffin, combined them under one cover as All Creatures Great and Small in 1972.
All Creatures Great and Small became both a 1975 film and a 90-episode BBC series, aired in 1978-1980, using scripts based on the book, and 1988-1990, using new scripts.
Recently re-released, All Creatures Great and Small introduces Herriot as a young vet joining his first practice, under senior vet Siegfried Farnon. The first story is set in 1937, actually two years before author Wight began practice, with the world on the verge of war.
Animals, Herriot learns, are relatively easy to deal with. Their people, however , can be cantankerous and short tempered. For example, Mr. Soames, farm manager for Lord Hulton, asks for Dr. Farnon to evaluate his colicky horse. Farnon is unavailable. After a long pause, a disgruntled Soames says, “For God’s sakes, don’t be all night getting here.” Herriot’s examination determines the horse’s condition is far more serious than simple colic. Soames is incredulous. “Twisted bowel my foot,” he says. He resists Herriot’s conclusion that there is no cure. Euthanasia is strongly recommended to end the horse’s agony. Dr. Farnon subsequently confirms the diagnosis, ending Soames’ doubts about his new assistant.
In addition to treating farm animals, including also sheep, pigs, and cows, Herriot’s patients include dogs and cats. One elderly dog keeper leads a hardscrabble life in a neighborhood whose houses often include boarded-up windows.
“Flakes of paint quivered on the rotten wood of the door as I knocked,” Herriot recounts. A small white-haired man opens the door and invites the veterinarian inside a musty-smelling room. The man expresses concern about his ailing dog, an aging lab-mix. The dog no longer eats. His abdomen is grossly distended. Barely moving, the dog offers no resistance as Herriot performs an examination. Then he breaks the fatal diagnosis. The old man’s lips tremble and he says, “Then he’s going to die?” Herriot gently leads the older man through the final process and ends the dog’s misery. Herriot refuses payment but accepts a cigar instead.
No two days in Herriot’s life are the same. They can be mundane, like performing routine examinations, or hectic, as in delivering stubborn calves at midnight.
“How on earth, then, did I come to be sitting on a high Yorkshire moor in shirt sleeves and Wellingtons, smelling vaguely of cow?” he asks.
Terry Watson’s cow, he says, looks sick, very sick. Watson has a wife and baby and barely supports them with his farm animals. After examining the cow’s milking problems, Herriot says he cannot promise a cure, but gives the cow an injection. He leaves Watson with a few instructions for further care. On a return visit the cow looks much improved and Watson is pleased.
Describing the transition in veterinary work from the historical focus on keeping working animals on the job to the present emphasis on pets, All Creatures Great and Small entertains, challenges, engages, and sometimes saddens. The animals cannot tell us about themselves, but Wight as Herriot does a splendid job of bringing us into their lives and the people who care for them.