Where my husband works there is a small library of books in the employee’s lunch room and the other day he brought home a real treasure: a collection of three of James Herriot’s books. This is a blast from my past. Because of Mr. Herriot’s evocative writing I wanted to be a vet. The life he described seemed like Nirvana to a young animal lover, especially one who grew up in a city and longed for country life. Unfortunately when I finally got a job working in a veterinary clinic I discovered not even James Herriot’s descriptive powers had done justice to the smell. I also discovered an aversion to hurting the animals, which is often necessary to be able to help them.
Still, re-reading these books has been a real treat and reinforced something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently. As a writer I have to be aware of my surroundings and engaged with the world. James Herriot didn’t begin writing his books until after more than twenty-five years of being in Yorkshire, yet the stories show a remarkable recall of situations, personalities and details. Without his powers of recall and description those books would have been a dry, perhaps slightly humorous, relation of facts. Instead they are a rich, warm, laugh-out-loud or bring-tears-to-your-eyes recounting of a journey scattered with characters well worth becoming acquainted with. Even after all these years I’m still riveted and the old longing reasserts itself. I want to run off to Yorkshire and become a vet.
Of course, being an unrepentant animal person who has never owned a dog or cat that was anything less than a crazy personality, these books appeal to me on so many different levels. But even if you have no interest in animals at all, they are well worth reading for the characterizations and descriptions of the landscape, people and dialogue.
For me, reading his books is like eating a favourite comfort food—satisfying, uplifting and just plain good.