James Herriot wrote tales based mainly on his work as a veterinary surgeon in the Yorkshire Dales in England. Each of his five major books covers material from two or three years of his life. He weaves the tales together, often beginning a tale in one chapter, leaving it for a chapter or two, and then concluding it. A major literary device that he uses well is the flashback. Part of one episode will remind him of an earlier one, and he does not conclude the narrative of the original episode until he finishes telling about the earlier one.
His books are basically episodic; they have no overall climax but instead consist of short narratives, many of which have their own climaxes, tied together by the same characters and settings. Many of the individual chapters can stand alone as separate stories.
There is some disagreement about how much of the books are based on fact and how much of their content is fictitious. At the very least, Herriot fictionalizes parts of his life, changing the names of people he knew, including himself, and the names of places where he worked and lived. Although his works seem to flow spontaneously, they are the end process of a series of revisions, rewrites, and polishing, things he claimed he loved doing. He re-creates himself as a mature narrator who looks back on his past and is able to laugh at and sympathize with himself.
His first major work, All Creatures Great and Small, is set at a time before the coming of widespread mechanization to the English countryside and the advent of wonder drugs, including antibiotics, in the treatment of animals. His last major book, Every Living Thing, reflects some of the changes that industrialization and improvements in medicine brought to the practice of veterinary medicine. Although he dislikes change, he writes of the way advances in medicine enhance the way veterinarians treat animals. He finds antibiotics and sulfonamides especially helpful, but even these drugs are not always sufficient. New surgical techniques, about which Herriot reads in periodicals, also better equip a veterinarian to treat animals.
Throughout his major works, Herriot portrays himself as a comic figure, who, almost in spite of himself, becomes a competent veterinarian in a rural practice. He feels that he often makes a fool of himself in his practice, sometimes because of his misdiagnosis of an animal, as in the case of Mr. Handshaw’s cow. Herriot says the cow has a broken pelvis and will never get up, but the cow ends up being fine. Sometimes he seems foolish to the farmers and their assistants even when his diagnosis is correct, as in their insistence that their animals have tail worm and his insistence that there is no such thing.
Herriot clearly exaggerates the traits of Siegfried Farnon, his employer and later his partner, and of Siegfried’s brother, Tristan Farnon. Siegfried, too, becomes a comical character. He chastises Herriot for being forgetful at the same time that he is himself terribly forgetful; he scolds his assistant for being too generous in his use of thread and cotton, while the next day chastising him for being too parsimonious. When Siegfried puts on a show of patience, Herriot knows that some kind of trouble will ensue. Nonetheless, Herriot admires Siegfried’s competence and concern and values his friendship. Tristan is a ne’er-do-well who repeatedly wrecks cars and mixes things up, as he does when he sends a can of cow excrement to Mr. Cranford with instructions to work it well into his boar’s back using his hands, or when he sends a package of ointment to a laboratory to have it analyzed for Johne’s disease. Still, Tristan is a friendly, compassionate, and brilliant person.
The books are tied together by Herriot’s love for the countryside in which he works and for the people and animals who live there. He recognizes that behind most of the people’s gruff exteriors is a strong concern for their fellow human beings and for their animals. Throughout the books...
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