All Things Wise and Wonderful

by James Herriot

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 683

All Things Wise and Wonderful is primarily autobiographical, but the numerous descriptive sketches of friends, neighbors, and animals that Herriot includes in his work demonstrate his literary talent, warmth, compassion, and sense of humor. While his anecdotes are skillfully crafted, the work is in no sense fictionalized. It is the result of the efforts of a master storyteller who can hold the attention of readers of all ages. James Herriot is a man in love with his life and the Yorkshire Dales of northern England. The land is beautiful, however harsh in winter, and the people are colorful and eccentric.

One of the recurring themes in this book relates to the homesickness that Herriot feels while serving in the military. He had been married only a short time before he was drafted, he was older than most of the men with whom he was serving, and while he wanted to serve his country, he felt somewhat out of place. His stories frequently show how he missed his wife and infant son and the countryside in Yorkshire. For example, he had a dream about an old cow that could not be cured of a debilitating ailment. Therefore, it was sold at the market, only to escape from the dealer and find its way home. Herriot concluded that he had this dream because he, too, wanted so desperately to return home.

The personal quirks of Siegfried and Tristan Farnon, with whom Herriot had lived and worked, provide the source for numerous other stories in the volume. When he first arrived in Darrowby, Herriot found work with Siegfried, who was the only practicing veterinarian in the area. He learned much from the older man but also found problems in gaining acceptance from area farmers who did not quite trust the abilities of the new doctor. Tristan, a veterinary student, was always pulling pranks on someone and never seemed to take life or his studies as seriously as Siegfried wished, leading to numerous clashes between the brothers, with Herriot frequently finding himself caught in the middle. On one occasion, Tristan was required to fill in for the cook for few days. He prepared sausage and mash for every meal and then nearly blew up the kitchen by lighting a fire with cotton soaked in ether. In another instance, Tristan put a German naturalist magazine among the waiting room periodicals so that he could enjoy the cataclysmic reaction when a client was confronted with total nudity. Siegfried, the sensible older brother—brilliant, energetic, always changing and upgrading his equipment—was of great assistance in making proper diagnoses, and in spite of a crusty exterior he could frequently be found spending hours trying to save a stray dog or giving care to the pet of a client who could not pay.

A country veterinarian was not able to specialize, and Herriot’s stories relate both to small animals and to livestock. Dogs, cats, and even cows and pigs had their own unique personalities. There was Coco, the cocker spaniel that emitted high-pitched, earsplitting howls whenever it was in a car with the engine running. Gertrude, the sow, rejected its piglets until it was provided two gallons of beer. Judy, the farm dog, served as a nurse for any sick animal, never leaving its “charges” until it was sure that they were out of danger.

Pet owners also had their peculiarities. There was Ralph Beamish, the horse trainer, who disagreed with every diagnosis that Herriot made and did the opposite of the suggested treatment. Mrs. Beck insisted that Herriot do a major operation on her cat, Georgina, for half the normal price and then made him come to pick it up—she had not bothered to catch it, however, before he arrived. After he had received a number of lacerations on both body and clothing while catching the cat, Mrs. Beck warned him to be gentle with Georgina because she was very timid.

The numerous stories in this volume evoke a multitude of emotions, from joy to pathos. Herriot remains throughout a master of the ability to captivate his audience.

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