When I was five, I wanted to be an artist. I was crazy about drawing. When I wasn’t fighting with my sibs over something, you’d likely find me holed away, either reading or drawing. My dad was an artist, you see. Sure, running that liquor store in the ghetto was what paid the bills, but it was firmly stamped in my six-year-old mind that he was meant for a higher calling. I mean, look at the gallon of milk he painted on the side of the store. Was it not the perfect rendering of a gallon of milk? You could practically see the condensation beginning to form because it had been out of the fridge for too long.
Dad always promised me art lessons, but between running a liquor store in the ghetto and trying to keep three kids fed, clothed, and academically successful, there was no time for a primer in the correct usage of watercolors.
To this day, I still hate watercolors. I don’t get how you keep all the colors from running together into a soupy, brown mess.
Then, when I was eight, I decided that I wanted to be an astronaut. The Challenger shuttle exploded that year and, somehow, instead of filling me with fear, it made me admire the bravery of the team who had hurtled unafraid into the beyond.
I shushed everyone if there was ever any news about NASA on TV. I made my parents rent Space Camp. I devoured books about space travel, including the movie novelization of Space Camp and a Choose Your Own Adventure book about traveling to Jupiter. I still remember to this day that Jupiter has rings like Saturn and many moons, of which the four largest are Europa, Callisto, Ganymede, and Io.
But I always knew in the back of my mind that this was a pipe dream. Besides, I’d read that you had to be incredibly physically fit to be an astronaut, and I always got a B in PE.
So, come seventh grade, I was in the market for a new dream. And that’s when I discovered James Herriot.
I was at a church camp the summer before seventh grade. I hadn’t brought much reading material with me, and I saw an older girl reading a book with a picture of a man with a dog on it. I asked her if I could borrow it when she was finished and, the next night, she handed it over.
I burned through that book like nobody’s business. I read it more than I read my Bible at that church camp (for the record, God didn’t save me until a good four years later). When I gave it back to the girl at the end of camp, I’d torn the back cover and cried pretty much all over it.
That book was… not All Creatures Great and Small. It was James Herriot’s Dog Stories, a collection of Herriot’s dog stories from his first four books. I’d always loved dogs, and my heart had broken when Tootsie, our beloved Miniature Schnauzer, died at the early age of two. Reading this Scottish vet’s account of his life in the English countryside set my dog-loving little heart afire and I instantly decided two things: that I needed to get a dog right away and that I was going to be a vet when I grew up.
It probably didn’t help that the owners of our campsite also bred Collies. I instantly fell in love with the dogs, and when I wasn’t reading that book, I was helping Mary Sadler brush and feed and walk her magnificent Collies. On the last night of church camp, people prayed all night, weeping over their sins. I sobbed my heart out, too… because I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving those wonderful dogs.
But the minute we got home, I resolved to return to the library and check out every single book they had by James Herriot. And that brings us back to the book at hand.
All Creatures Great and Small was James Herriot’s first book. A country vet, he didn’t know the first thing about writing, but he was an avid reader, and his wife goaded him into finally taking action. This book covers his arrival in Darrowby and his initiation into the ways and lifestyle of the farmers in the Yorkshire Dales. He writes with an intuitive knack for description, and his sparkling humor brings his stories to life.
His stories aren’t just about animals and his veterinary practice. They’re also about his friendship with his boss, the eccentric Siegfried Farnon, and Siegfried’s irrepressible younger brother, Tristan. They’re about his infatuation with a local woman, and his bumbling attempts to woo her. They’re about the quiet strength, stubbornness, and kindness of the people of the Yorkshire Dales. James Herriot’s stories are an homage to the people who adopted him into their midst, and a love song to the place that shaped them into who they are.
They’re so funny that you’ll find yourself snorting with stifled laughter at three in the morning. And, the next minute, you’ll be sobbing uncontrollably at the pathos of a particularly touching tale.
One of the best things about Herriot’s books is that each chapter reads like its own short story, so you can always find a place to stop if you need to. You’re not itching to know what happens next, but you still can’t wait to pick it up again.
Herriot’s humor and vivacious writing make All Creatures Great and Small a page-turner. It’s an absolute must-read for animal lovers.
As for me, I abandoned my dream of becoming a veterinarian during my first year at UCI, when it dawned on me that I hated all of my science classes and wasn’t good at any of them.
But Herriot left a mark on me still. Instead of leaving a void where my dream used to be, his writing planted a seed. As “what do you want to be when you grow up?” began to morph into “what are you going to do when you graduate?” I decided to declare English Literature as my major. I wanted to become a writer.
And, now, I am one. And I’m barely surviving on the little money I make. Living the dream, y’all. And, while the money sucks, I’ve never been happier. James Herriot would approve.