Over ten years after the publication of the last book in the James Herriot "All Creatures Great and Small" series, Herriot published a fifth book in 1992, a few years before his death in 1995. The book flew off the shelves, and I was lucky enough to get a first edition for Christmas after it came out!
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Every Living Thing
"All Creatures Great and Small" continues the semi-autobiographical account of a country veterinarian in Yorkshire, England. This volume ranges over the 30 years that follow the fourth book ("The Lord God Made them All"). He and his wife Helen are on the lookout for another house. The house-hunting theme forms the main, chronological thread of the book, but the rest of it is a wonderful return to the warm vet stories we came to love in the earlier books.
Style: Just like the first four books, "Every Living Thing" is arranged in short, episodic chapters. The book is almost a collection of short stories, bound together by a few over-arching themes like the house-hunting adventure.
In this fifth volume, Herriot returns to the roots of the first two books. All the action takes place in Yorkshire. The third and fourth book had a more experimental structure: in the third book, the vet stories were told in the form of flashbacks during Herriot’s training as a World War II pilot. The fourth book was two books in one – a set of post-war Yorkshire stories interleaved with an independent set of travel stories set in the 1960’s. Neither of these structures worked very well for me, and I was glad to see the return to the style of the earlier books I enjoyed so much.
A tad formulaic: The stories in this volume are wonderful, though not as memorable as those from the earlier books. This may be because I read them later in life (in college as opposed to in high school) and I had less time to linger over a book. Also, as the book is more recent, the stories did not have the time to sit and ripen in my memory like the others did. Nor have I had time to re-read this book like I have the other four. I have read this one only once.
Another possible reason I found this volume to be a bit less memorable than the others is that it is more formulaic. I find formula-driven stories less compelling than character-driven stories. So, earlier characters like Mrs. Pumphrey with her fantasy world constructed around her spoiled dog Tricki-Woo; the hard-bitten farmer who visits two retired horses every single day of the year; the vulture-like Mr. Cranford; Herbert the orphan lamb who nursed at any convenient udder; and Clancy the "womiting" dog, are all characters who populate my memory.
I remember few such characters from this fifth volume. Instead, I remember formulas. One formula is the human-animal connection story. Act 1: portray human and animal relationship at its best. Act 2: Animal gets sick, human begins to falter in his own life. Act 3: Animal is cured and human returns to normal. We get this formula at least twice in this volume: once with the confectioner who loses his poise when his cat gets sick, and once with the tailor who is heckled by his clients when his big guard dog falls ill.
However, there are still memorable characters. Calum, the student vet with the badger who leaves to practice in New Guinea; John, another student vet who leaves his car in a puddle, door open, windshield wipers running, to catch a train the instant he hears his fiancée has been hurt; the aristocratic man who lives in a tent with his little cat Emily.
All in all, I recommend this book to Herriot fans. If you are new to the series, start with "All Creatures Great and Small" to be introduced to the characters and the setting and the most memorable stories. I consider the first book to be Herriot’s best, but this fifth one still has many wonderful stories to please the fans.
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