blog by Cindy Bushey
Revisiting old friends or acquaintances after a long absence can often reveal changes in perspective. Habits that were cute in a young friend now might grate on your nerves. Philosophies and opinions might have changed causing friends to drift apart. The same holds true when comparing different historical eras with the present. Widely accepted behavior and beliefs can now make a person cringe. Trying to introduce a friend to a different time and way of existence can produce reactions such as “Why in the world would they do that?” or “You really liked that?” Zion’s Book Club went back in time for January’s selection with basically similar results.
Back in the early 1970’s, a series of books by a British veterinarian ascended to the top of the best seller lists. James Herriott (the pen name of English veterinary surgeon James Alfred Wight) wrote his memoirs in successive volumes at his wife’ urging beginning with All Creatures Great and Small. It was this book which some of Zion’s readers re-read and others explored for the first time. Set in 1937, All Creatures Great and Small follows Mr. Herriott (vets and medical surgeons were not given the title of doctor under ancient British guild rules – only physicians could prescribe medicines and attain doctorates and thus the title) as he luckily finds a position straight out of vet school in rural, remote northern England. We meet the different local characters in each descriptive chapter as well as making the acquaintance of various animals. Rural vets at that time dealt mostly with large farm animals like horses and pigs with smaller pets as more of a sideline. Each chapter was a vignette drawn from his day book where veterinarians kept track of their patients, their diagnoses, and treatment.
Mr. Herriott’s descriptions certainly made the characters jump from the pages; however, for some of our readers there was too much description and not enough dialogue. While many readers laughed out loud at some of the situations in which the vet found himself (being tricked into a rubber wetsuit ranks toward the top), others failed to see the humor. The practice of stripping down to the waist no matter the weather to soap up an arm and insert it into body cavities to ascertain the position of unborn baby animals (problem births seemed to be a large part of the veterinary practice) seemed bizarre. But this was years before the advent and widespread use of latex gloves. The descriptions of drinking and driving as well as the smoking around barns full of hay did not sit well with our readers. It was also interesting to contemplate the lackadaisical approach to collecting fees from the vantage point of 21st century pet insurance! On many levels, it was truly a walk back into the past. The relationship between farmers and their livestock in rural 1937 England was more intimate and emotional than the no-nonsense view of animals as commodities now so prevalent in this country.
The character of Siegfried, the slightly older veterinarian who hired the newly minted vet, was an interesting character study. Many readers felt he probably had undiagnosed mental problems as his temper could flare to a runaway wildfire in seconds (especially when dealing with his younger brother, a more relaxed figure going through the motions of pursuing a veterinary degree) and then cool to ice. He would tell Jim Herriott how to do something and then do a complete 180-degree turn telling him that he had done the thing exactly wrong. It was not a surprise for our readers to learn the actual person who inspired this character committed suicide; it seemed we watched his deterioration through the book. Even with Mr. Herriott’s very busy days full of visits to outlying farms, his discovery of his future wife and slow (some might say glacially slow) pursuit of her, some readers felt that very little was actually happening and found the book unexciting and not overly thrilling. Others delighted in the interesting quirks found among the inhabitants and felt it was an easy read.
Surprisingly, at least seven of our readers had not read All Creatures Great and Small before this. Unsurprisingly, we had seven readers feeling neutral about the book, two gave it one thumb up and three gave it two thumbs up. Of those who enjoyed the book upon re-reading it, many found it rewarding for different reasons than the first time around. That’s the great thing about books – they can be revisited like old friends, they can point out changes in perspective, and they can educate us about ourselves, our likes, and our dislikes. For February, our readers jump back to the 21st century and explore Gaining Ground: A Story of Farmers’ Markets, Local Food, and Saving the Family Farm, a book whose title would seem to resonate with our rural, agricultural area. Join us and find out!