Thursday, March 25, 2010

"All Creatures Great and Small" by James Herriot

Summary: Herriot's memoir of his first two years as a veterinary surgeon for the rural farms of the Yorkshire Dales in England during the 1930s.

Musings: I picture vets much like I picture doctors: in sterile offices with crisp lab coats and helpful technicians.  Herriot's world is nothing like this.  Taking place in rural farms nearly eighty years ago, Herriot's practice involves being on call twenty-four hours a day, arriving at farms in all forms of weather, stripping off his shirt, scrubbing down with water and soap, and getting down and dirty.  It's hard work, but it's clearly work Herriot loves, and his enthusiasm for his customers, patients, and town is infectious.

All Creatures is less a narrative than a large collection of short anecdotes about his practice.  Many of the stories evidence Herriot's admiration for the hardworking farmers.  I teared up at a touching account of a young farmer with just a few animals who stayed up for twenty-four hours rubbing down an ailing cow or a wealthy aging farmer with many animals who nonetheless had been daily attending to two retired horses for twelve years.  Even the difficult farmers--those who don't pay, those who don't trust vets--are detailed with good humor.  Herriot is also happy to describe his own shortcomings and small humiliations.

What sets the book apart is its overall warmth and optimism.  I find myself dragged down by daily annoyances (people, rules, responsibilities), but Herriot's book finds the good in every situation.  In fact, I find the best adjectives to describe the book are those words which normally make me groan and wince: heart-warming, touching, sweet.  The devout cynic within me struggled against the basic goodness of the stories Herriot tells, but in the end, I gave in.

Herriot is a simple storyteller, and each small chapter ended with me smiling.  In an age of modern conveniences and in which the family farm is largely nonexistent, it was also rewarding to read about a different time. 

Herriot's book is not a straight autobiography, as the stories are a combination of real experience and creative license, but I don't think that diminishes the pleasure of reading any.  It's a warm story that doesn't resort to melodrama.

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