If you have been feeling down or alone, it’s time to join the veterinarian James Herriot in his nostalgic adventures across Yorkshire. These casually heartfelt short stories are just what the doctor ordered.

The hand-drawn image of James Herriot as the cover of his first book
The cover of the first collection, All Creatures Great and Small

For those of you who have not had the pleasure of meeting James Herriot, allow me to introduce you. James Wright, better known as James Herriot, was a veterinarian who worked in the Yorkshire Dales of England. He had a long career, starting around the time of WWII where he briefly leaves veterinary medicine to join the Royal Air Force. His heart remains in Yorkshire, though, and he returns to it to continue his practice for many more years.

When Herriot began writing stories about his life and experiences, the animals he worked with and the people he met became the world of the James Herriot books. They are reasonably biographical, true stories with details changed for the sake of the story and privacy. Although many locations are renamed, changed, or merged together, they are real.

James Herriot witnessed some of the largest changes in the veterinary world. The discovery of penicillin and other lifesaving medications resulting in the decline of old remedies. The rise of the tractor and large-scale dairies, and the decline of draft horses and small farms. The animals he worked with, the people he met, and the world he lived in became the inspiration for his beloved stories.

Herriot’s stories are warm and friendly, more like sitting with a friend in a pub than reading a book. With his skillful writing and casual tone, readers are immersed in a beautiful and playful world. You can’t feel alone while you join Herriot on his rounds.

Watching time change the world

Medicine shelf full of glass bottles and jars
A shelf of common medications from the James Herriot museum
Image by Naaz Nomad from Flickr

Herriot acknowledges that he practiced during the era of medical breakthroughs. Penicillin and sulfide medications, developed during WWII, were quickly incorporated in animal medicine. Antibiotics and improved bandages reliably turned many cases of “wait and see” into quick recoveries.

As you join Herriot on his rounds, you see a lot of his prescriptions. It is a walk through medical history to watch how they improve from decade to decade. Injections quickly take the spotlight in medicine, and old potions like Universal Cattle Medicine, a mostly useless vitamin mixture, and tinctures of turpentine and treacle fade away.

Despite all the advancement, there is a bittersweet nostalgia about the passing of old remedies. His education had included hours of mixing powders and oils from delicate paper packages and intricate glass vials. Sterile plastic packaging looks a bit lackluster in comparison. Of course, modern medicines are much more effective, and using outdated cures would be foolish, but Herriot is still a little sad to see the passing of the old ways.

This attachment to the past includes the land as well. Although Herriot appreciates the wealth of progress in its own way, he dislikes the changes of the modern world. There are care and charm in the farms that had a dozen cows and some chickens that a hundred-cow dairy doesn’t quite have. Herriot’s stories let you appreciate small town England right along with him.

Heartwarming stories

Most stories are set in the fields and homes of Yorkshire.
Most stories are set in the fields and homes of Yorkshire.
Photo by sandilands villa on Flickr

There might be a “Chicken Soup for…” book for all different walks of life, but Herriot’s stories are written for every one of those people. Most of the stories about a veterinarian’s life are about animal medicine, but that isn’t all they are. They are a glimpse of life in mid-century Yorkshire: stories of hill farmers and big ranchers, businessmen and shopkeepers, people from old money, new money, or no money, and all people who love their animals. Even people who aren’t fond of animal stories will enjoy the vivid world that Herriot lives in.

Many stories are of wonderful success. Herriot is clear about the variety in {a country vet’s life, and} his stories evoke every sort of emotion. Herriot mourns with owners over lost pets, feuds with dogs who hate going to the vet, spends cheerful nights at the pub, teaches young colleagues, and goes out day and night on emergency calls. Even a bad night of emergency calls is worth the lost sleep when he can help a horse through a night of colic, or assist a mother cow with giving birth.

Even people who aren’t fond of animal stories will enjoy the vivid world that Herriot lives in.

There are successes and failures, people who are good and bad, mistakes and good luck, and all the chaos of life. However, the majority of the stories focus on the good. Herriot does not spare the reader from bittersweet heartbreak. Sometimes tragedies occur, and you can’t set them right no matter how hard you try. When this happens, Herriot chooses to focus on the good, and finds love and hope in any situation.

A book for all occasions

Bainbridge, Yorkshire. A green English pasture and countryside
Bainbridge, Yorkshire. This would be a common view for James Herriot in the field.
Photo by Glenn Birks from Flickr

It isn’t often that you find a book you can read at any time and in any mood, but James Herriot’s stories are one of them. They are written in a light and warm voice that is clear and easy to follow. Not that they are childish (though many children love the stories), but they are simply a joy to read. Plus, the books are made up of short stories that are just a few pages long, so they fit right into your schedule.

Herriot writes with a humorous tilt, so the stories are bright and captivating even when they are sad. The vast range of animals and characters makes each one distinct and unique. Unlike a Game of Thrones style epic, most characters only show up for one story. If they are repeats, they are essential and detailed enough to be remembered. No cheat sheet of character names, descriptions, and backstory is necessary. Just enjoy the ride.

A plaque on the side of James Herriot's old surgery, now museum.
Sign posted on the wall of James Herriot’s surgery (now a museum) in Kirkgate.
Photo by bennyboy619 from Flickr

Despite the apparent simplicity of the writing, they are deep and meaningful stories. Don’t let the casual tone fool you. He talks about topics like justice and fair treatment for people and animals, the ethics of euthanasia and slaughter, and the burden of human care and responsibility. Each story is rich in content, emotionally satisfying, and often mentally challenging.

If you are looking for something to read, something to cheer you up, to escape for a bit, learn some new things, these books are for you. If you feel like you want to make a friend in a book world, here you go. James Herriot is here for you. It doesn’t matter if you are a passionate reader or not, animal lover or not; these books are great stories that everyone should read.