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The Herriot Legacy
WRITER WARMLY DETAILED BOND BETWEEN PEOPLE, ANIMALS
By: Mary Ann Grossmann, Knight-Ridder/Tribune
© Chicago Tribune, Wednesday, March 8, 1995
There were extra hugs for the cats in our household last weekend, and the dogs got unusually long sniffing time on our walks. These were the best ways, I thought, to honor the memory of James Herriot.
Our dainty gray cat was lying in my lap like a humming meatloaf when I read of Herriot’s recent death. It was as though a little light went out in my life, and I instinctively stroked Lady Jane’s soft ears while I absorbed the idea that James Alfred Wight (Herriot’s real name) would never write again of his life and work in the Yorkshire dells of northern England.
I knew, of course, that this modest and beloved vet was a successful author whose gentle books sold more than 50 million copies in 20 countries, that he rarely gave interviews, and that he certainly wasn’t going to leave his ivy-covered home in the market town of Thirsk to travel to America. Still, I cherished the illogical hope that by some miracle, we would be in the same room so I could, well-so I could give him a hug.
People often ask me about my favorite author, probably expecting me to wax eloquent about Proust or Shakespeare, so I used to be a little embarrassed to honestly reply, “James Herriot.” But not anymore. After spending a wonderful weekend rereading Herriot’s books, I realized that his writing has everything: finely drawn and colorful characters, empathy for humans and animals, a good story set in a gentler time, humor, respect for uneducated but hard-working people and an appreciation of the land.
But there’s something else in Herriot’s writing that I can’t quite articulate, a glow of decency that makes people want to be better humans. I guess we’d call it spirituality these days, this profound belief of Herriot’s that humans are linked to all animals, whether they be the calves he helped birth or pampered pets like Tricki Woo, Mrs. Pumphrey’s lovable but overfed Pekinese.
The outlines of Herriot’s life were detailed in the news stories about his death: his youth in Scotland, finding a job with Donald Sinclair (Siegfried Farnon in the books), his adventures with the drinking-and-carousing Tristan (Sinclair’s brother, Brian) and Herriot’s love for the moors and valleys of Yorkshire, where he drove for miles in the worst weather to help animals on outlying farms.
In the introduction to “James Herriot’s Dog Stories,” he goes into more detail about how he always loved dogs and supposed that he’d someday have an up-to-date, small-animal practice, even though veterinary medicine was in trouble in the 1930s because draft horses were being phased out and keeping small pets was seen as “slightly cissy” by the hard-working farm folk.
Even as a boy, he was intrigued by dogs: “I could never quite take dogs for granted. Why were they so devoted to the human race? Why should they delight in our company and welcome us home in transports of joy? There were so many different shapes, sizes and colours, yet they all had the same fundamental characteristics. Why, Why?”
Herriot never got his small-animal practice, but he didn’t care. He was content to lave cow’s stomachs, lie on cold stone floors to examine downed horses and muck around in pigpens so he could spend part of each day caring for dogs and cats at Skeldale House.
His helpmate in all his endeavors was his wife, Helen, about whom he wrote so lovingly. They celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in 1992, the same year Herriot turned his practice over to his son (although that didn’t stop the invasion of fans who tracked him down at his home).
Because Herriot was a partner in a busy practice, spread over many miles, he didn’t have time to begin writing until he was older than 50. He couldn’t have taken any writing classes, since most of his life is accounted for in his books, and he never mentions formal training. But there was probably nothing for him to learn; he did it instinctively.
His first two books were published in Britain, where he was discovered by Thomas McCormack, chairman of St. Martin’s Press. When St. Martin’s published “All Creatures Great and Small” in 1972, a perceptive reviewer named Alfred C. Ames wrote in the Chicago Tribune, “If there is any justice, this book will become a classic of its kind. With seemingly effortless art, this man tells his stories with perfect timing. Many more famous authors could work for a lifetime and not achieve more flawless literary control.”
Now, death has stilled James Herriot’s lovely voice. But he left us his books, and we can take comfort in the fact that he believed he would be reunited with all the dogs he loved: the beautiful Irish setter with whom he walked the Scottish hills during his boyhood; Hector, the Jack Russell terrier; and Dan, the black Lab who rode with him for many years as he made his calls.
In his story “The Card Over the Bed,” Herriot writes of an old woman whose only fear is that she may never be reunited with her animals after death because some people say animals have no soul. Holding the old woman’s hand, Herriot replies:
“If having a soul means being able to feel love and loyalty and gratitude, then animals are better off than a lot of humans. You’ve nothing to worry about there.”
On days when I miss the members of our animal family who have died, I comfort myself with a childish vision of a heaven where there are endless fields and woods in which to run, and St. Francis sits beneath a tree surrounded by every animal who ever lived. Who could doubt that James Herriot is sitting with them?