On the shelf: ‘The best of James Herriot: favorite memories of a country vet’ by James Herriot

By Lisa Boss, Grand Rapids Public Library, Main


“All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small, all things wise and wonderful, the Lord God made them all.” (Cecil Alexander)


Great books are like musical pieces, with chords and leitmotifs that resonate in our hearts and help us to cope with a painful world. As such, new ones are not necessarily better than older ones, and personal favorites may bring the comfort and wisdom of time-tested friends. I re-visit a few of the Herriot books every so often, and feel the better for it. James Alfred Wight (1916-1995) — pen name, James Herriot — grew up in Scotland and graduated from Glasgow Veterinary College, going to work at a small rural practice when he was 23. A self-confessed “city boy”, he soon fell in love with the wild, spacious countryside of the Yorkshire Dales and its inhabitants.


The semi-fictionalized tales of his eccentric partner, Siegfried, with his devil-may-care brother, Tristan, and a larger cast of town characters, have been the bedrock of an enduring legacy. Memoirs of a time and place that don’t exist anymore; Britain between the great wars and on into the forties and fifties, when a great transition was taking place from tiny farms powered by draft animals to a more industrial form of agriculture.


To dip into these reminisces is to visit a quieter time, but not an easier one, for vets or their patients. A time before the “miracle” drugs were yet to appear, leading the author to remark, “Those old black magic days with their exotic, largely useless medicines reeking of witchcraft. They have gone for good and though as a veterinary surgeon I rejoice, as a writer I mourn their passing.”


Wight wanted to preserve that unique time, and when he started writing his memoirs in his fifties, he imagined a small book of humorous anecdotes, but the books soon grew into a whole world with all its joys and sorrows. Not just about animals, but more about how all the components of work, relationships, love and duty fit together to form healthy communities.


And like many compassionate people, the author himself did not always have an easy time of it. He endured a chronic physical ailment and could suffer bouts of depression (possibly from Brucellosis), which one might never guess from his books, except that there is much more depth and understanding of the human condition than a quick glance might reveal.


Loved for over 30 years, they are true modern classics.