James Herriot plays uncle to a rich dog in All Creatures Great and Small (1972). It is just one of the funny situations Herriot faces as a new veterinarian in the English countryside. Tricky is a small Pekingese dog spoiled by rich widow, Mrs. Pumphrey. When Herriot visits frequently to help Tricky by squeezing the puss from his infected bottom, his owner begins sending Herriot letters and invitations and gifts in Tricky’s name. The “trick” is for Herriot to respond to the dog, not Mrs. Pumphrey.
Of course, he is teased by his employer Siegfried Farnon, who runs the country practice for which Herriot works. The two, along with Siegfried’s brother Tristan (their father liked Wagner) attend to the town’s animals.
There is no overarching plot, but the book is instead a collection of Herriot’s memories of his first year as a veterinary surgeon and the many lessons he learned. Herriot’s real name is James Alfred Wight. The book is his memoir.
I remember the book being a staple on the bookshelves of my childhood home. I have a sense that it must’ve been popular in the 1970s, for it often graces the shelves of vintage bookstores and thrift shops in the dozens. I know there are sequels, which I have not read, but I am sure they a just as enjoyable and entertaining.
I first read the memoir as a junior high school student because of that paperback copy in my home. I remember enjoying it immensely, but as I recently reread it, I wonder how I enjoyed it so much. I am sure I did not understand most of it, especially the birds and the bees parts. There is also some harsh language and grown up humor. But I have great memories of having read it then.
Those memories are mostly of the feelings I have toward the book, for the stories were completely unfamiliar to me. I enjoyed rereading and feeling as if I had met this book for the first time.
It begins with Herriot describing his arm inside of a cow. It is a gripping scene and a great narrative hook. Who doesn’t want to know more about what will happen? This scene replays itself in different forms many times throughout the book, for Herriot is always fixing cows and other animals in labor, whether that means putting a uterus back inside or turning a calf or a pig so it can continue to descend during birth.
The other fun scenes involve Herriot being kicked or attacked by the animals. This part of being a veterinarian is probably what I would not be capable of handling. If I’m being honest, I am afraid of animals. I think some of them are beautiful, but I feel that I cannot ever know their thoughts, feelings, or temperament; therefore, I cannot trust them. This leads to fear. I am also afraid of their saliva on my skin and that dirty feeling on my hands after stroking their coats. I am somewhat picky about having clean hands, so veterinary work is not for me. However, I got to live it vicariously through All Creatures Great and Small.
The other part that I love is the title. It is from the hymn “All Things Bright and Beautiful,” but it reminds me of another favorite hymn, written by St. Francis of Assisi, “All Creatures of Our God and King.” The words are beautiful and poetic. And the music is divine and inspiring. I sometimes play it on the organ for my church’s congregation, and I am filled with joy whenever I hear the refrain, Alleluia. The melody makes those words mean more.
It really is a fitting title for a veterinarian’s memoir. I am glad I revisited it.