The title of James Herriot’s latest book, like its three predecessors published in the United States, comes from a stanza by Cecil Frances Alexander (1818-1895):
All things bright and beautiful
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful,
The Lord God made them all.
The books named for the first three lines of the stanza took the reader from Herriot’s first job as a rural veterinarian through World War II. The Lord God Made Them All picks up his life just as he has returned from a term in the Royal Air Force. The book opens with a one sentence paragraph: “When the gate fell on top of me I knew I was really back home.” Immediately, the tone and content of the book are established. With simple, direct language, mildly self-mocking humor, and a strong sense of “home” in the Yorkshire countryside, Herriot launches into another series of episodes based on his life as a country vet.
In The Lord God Made Them All, however, the series of Yorkshire anecdotes is broken by entries from the diaries of two trips Herriot took in the early 1960’s, first on a Danish ship carrying sheep to Russia, and then on a plane ferrying Jersey cattle to Turkey. The interpolation of these trips is unfortunate. First, Herriot allows little preparation or justification for them, declaring only that he will not write about the 1950’s in this book; instead, “At the moment I should like to jump forward in time to 1961 in order to interpolate some extracts from the journal I kept of my Russian adventure.” Similarly, he inserts the Turkish trip by merely announcing, “Again I step forward in time from the postwar years.” The trip to Turkey is relatively short (three chapters), but the Russian voyage consumes eight chapters, apparently inserted at random into the first two-thirds of the book. The only warning given that the reader is about to leave a Yorkshire barn to rejoin the Danish ship bound for Russia is a dateline, such as “October 29, 1961,” inserted above the first paragraph of a chapter. Also, even though these episodes are excerpts from a diary, they would have benefited from more editing. Shifts in verb tense, for example, are often disconcerting: at one point, the officers of the ship “were dark,” the crew “were all of a type,” and all of them “were cheerful and polite.” In the next paragraph, however, one of those crewmen “is twenty-eight,” and “is married, with two young children.”
Worst of all, the trip chapters tend to be uneventful, even boring. A sheep’s foot gets infected; Herriot cures it. A group of sheep develop a cough, and he worries repeatedly about their passing Russian inspection; they pass. Several fierce storms arise, but the captain is competent, the ship tight, and Herriot a good sailor. The Danish cook prepares elaborate meals despite the storms and his small galley; Herriot gives such elaborate descriptions of the food that at one point he worries (correctly) that the “journal is in danger of degenerating into a kind of Cattle Boat Cook Book.” The trip takes ten days but seems much longer. At the end of one chapter Herriot notes that “it has been a long, long day”; the weary reader can only agree.
The trip to Turkey is similarly uneventful—the plane is old and needs major repair, but the crew manages to fly it; Herriot worries about the cattle’s reaction to take-offs and landings, but they stand placidly in rows, eating hay; Herriot and the British cattle handlers stupidly and futilely look for a pub in a Muslim city and end up crashing a wedding party; Herriot tries to call home but cannot make the connections. Herriot does confine the phone episode to a half page, recognizing for once the tedium of excessive detail.
Far fewer problems arise in the rest of the book. Herriot is both figuratively and literally on firmer ground in Yorkshire. His love for the beautiful but sometimes harsh countryside is evident, but he has cut back on the lengthy descriptions of the dales and moors that plagued some of the earlier books. The things he does show of the land and other aspects of the setting involve all the reader’s senses—the “great fells thrusting their bald summits into the clouds,” the malignant gates that fall on Herriot, the hard, cobbled floors of the old barns, the yipping of dogs as they herd cattle, even the “rich bouquet of manure, dog hairs, and assorted chemicals that was the normal atmosphere of my car.”
Herriot also openly admits his “positive delight” in conversations with “dry Yorkshire raconteurs,” and in fact he has become an amanuensis for them. In this book, for example, the reader discovers Robert Maxwell, who steadfastly refuses to blame Herriot when a cow dies from a blood clot formed because Herriot has ineptly injected her with an experimental medicine. The forgiving Mr. Maxwell calls Herriot again when another cow gets sick, and this time another drug still in the early, experimental stage (penicillin) works. Suddenly Maxwell blasts Herriot with an angry tirade about the penicillin tubes, pamphlets, and boxes littered all over the barn floor, but then relents, laughs, and admits, “’Nay, I’m just havin’ ye on, lad. Of course you didn’t realise. You were ower busy curin’ me cow.’” Then there is Mr. Biggins, argumentative and pigheaded, who manages to outwit and frustrate Herriot on almost every call. In another chapter, the Hudson brothers allow themselves to be pressured into insurance by a persistent salesman, and then cheerfully proceed to have the first accidents in their lives, eventually collecting over...