The Comfort of James Herriot’s Stories

All Crea­tures Great & Small, Mas­ter­piece The­ater, PBS

I don’t know if you are watch­ing All Crea­tures Great and Small on Mas­ter­piece The­ater on PBS these Sun­day nights, but if you’re not, you are miss­ing some­thing wonderful.

All Crea­tures Great and Small is a col­lec­tion of sto­ries told by vet­eri­nar­i­an James Her­riot. (Her­riot is his pen name, actu­al­ly — James Alfred White was his real name.) His sto­ries of car­ing for the ani­mals in York­shire, Britain, are filled with gen­tle wis­dom, pro­found moments, and won­der­ful char­ac­ters (human and not.) 

This lat­est ren­di­tion of the show (there have been many over the last 50 years) came out in Britain last spring and was a run­away pan­dem­ic hit. We in the U.S. get it now. Tis balm for the soul, I’m telling you.

As put it: [T]he real rea­son this show is des­tined to be a hit all over again is the gen­tle­ness of its premise, and the small­ness of its dra­mas. These are not sto­ries that span con­ti­nents or gen­er­a­tions. Ten­sion is found in two cats acci­den­tal­ly put back in the wrong cages, or cows suf­fer­ing from milk fever.

Sweet relief — give me more Gen­tle­ness of Premise and Small­ness of Dra­ma, I say! Beau­ti­ful land­scapes, won­der­ful accents, great char­ac­ters, and grace-filled kind­ness fill these sto­ries. The Mas­ter­piece pro­duc­tion is gor­geous and it has sent me back to the sto­ries themselves.

I have a vivid mem­o­ry of read­ing James Her­riot sto­ries to #1 Son. A severe asth­mat­ic, #1 Son’s ear­ly years fea­tured sev­er­al fright­en­ing res­pi­ra­to­ry episodes. He was hos­pi­tal­ized a cou­ple of times and kept out of the hos­pi­tal sev­er­al more times by a ded­i­cat­ed doc­tor will­ing to give us emer­gency treat­ment in her office, let­ting us hang out until he was stable.

Complete Tales of Winnie-the-PoohThose were years in which I car­ried a “sto­ry­book” in my purse/bag — some­thing longer than a tra­di­tion­al pic­ture book, a “long book” as #1 Son called it, with sev­er­al sto­ries housed in sep­a­rate chap­ters. Pip­pi Long­stock­ing, Nar­nia, Pooh, and the like. I car­ried such books just in case…just in case we sud­den­ly found our­selves in the doctor’s office all day or the emer­gency room.

The year he was in kinder­garten #1 Son left for school one after­noon at 12:30 with a run­ny nose — spring aller­gies — and when he arrived home on the bus less than three hours lat­er I had to car­ry him inside and was faced with the deci­sion of whether to call an ambu­lance or some­how get him to the hos­pi­tal on my own — quick­ly. I opt­ed for the lat­ter and still some­times won­der if I would make that same deci­sion if I had to do it over again.

He was admit­ted to the hos­pi­tal that time, “a very sick boy” the ER doc­tor said so omi­nous­ly I thought my heart stopped. He wore a mask that deliv­ered oxy­gen and med­ica­tion 247. The steroids that nor­mal­ly wired him when they kicked in didn’t — he was so sick. He lay in the hos­pi­tal bed with his eyes closed, the hum of the neb­u­liz­er the only sound in the room. My hus­band and I shuf­fled his baby sis­ter around with grand­par­ent help and took turns stay­ing with him.

James Herriot's Treasury for ChildrenOne morn­ing I was there with him and in an effort to have some sound that was not med­ical I began read­ing the “long book” in my bag: James Herriot’s Trea­sury for Chil­dren.

I think it may be the very best book I could’ve read dur­ing that fright­en­ing time. Our copy has beau­ti­ful illus­tra­tions, but #1 Son was too sick to view them. I lay in the bed with him and read aloud these sweet sto­ries of ani­mals and their peo­ple. We had/have no pets — ani­mal dan­der being one of the biggest asth­ma trig­gers for three in our fam­i­ly. But our kids always loved sto­ries of animals.

But most­ly I read those sto­ries in the hos­pi­tal for me, if I’m hon­est. My baby was asleep or too sick to pay atten­tion. But those sto­ries of such gen­tle premise, such small dra­ma, helped my Mama-heart beat a bit stead­ier, a lit­tle slow­er, more sure. could breathe eas­i­er while I read them and it gave me hope his breath would come eas­i­er soon. So I read over the sound of the neb­u­liz­er until I was hoarse.

When the first episode of All Crea­tures Great and Small start­ed a cou­ple of weeks ago, I texted #1 Son, a healthy, strap­ping young man whose asth­ma sel­dom both­ers any­more, and asked if he remem­bered read­ing the Her­riot sto­ries. He did not — he remem­bers lit­tle of that hos­pi­tal­iza­tion and I don’t think we read them again, for what­ev­er rea­son. But as the open­ing cred­its rolled, my eyes filled with tears and my heart was full of grat­i­tude for Dr. “Her­riot” and his stories.

If you find your­self in need of sim­ple com­fort, some delight and beau­ty deliv­ered with small dra­ma and gen­er­ous kind­ness, do check out All Crea­tures Great and Small. Per­fect for these ongo­ing pan­dem­ic days….

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candice ransom
3 years ago

Heav­en knows we can all use all the com­fort we can get, Melanie. I so loved this essay because it shows the true pow­er of read­ing, no mat­ter what the sto­ry, or the cir­cum­stances. I car­ry a book with me every­where and read stand­ing in line at the post office, wait­ing in doc­tors’ offices, in the movie the­ater dur­ing com­mer­cials and com­ing attrac­tions (with very lit­tle light). Most peo­ple “kill” time with their phones. I use books to keep me calm, cen­tered, and enter­tained. I haven’t watched the Her­riot shows, old or new, but I am get­ting that lus­cious trea­sury of sto­ries. When the new… Read more »

3 years ago

I love this essay, Melanie. And thank you for the series rec­om­men­da­tion – sim­ple com­fort and gen­er­ous kind­ness are cer­tain­ly things we can all use right now!

David LaRochelle
3 years ago

You make a strong case for the series, and the books, Melanie! I’ll have to check to see if Gary can get the on his TV.

Sarah Sullivan
3 years ago

What a love­ly essay, Melanie! And, I could­n’t agree with you more. I just keep watch­ing these new episodes over and over again. They are absolute­ly wonderful!

Susan Latta
Susan Latta
3 years ago

Melanie, thank you for this. Wow. I too am enjoy­ing the shows, and sit there with a smile on my face for the whole episode. I nev­er read the book, but think I will now. You are so right in say­ing they are balm for the soul!

April Halprin Wayland
3 years ago

Melanie, thank you for gen­er­ous­ly shar­ing this slice of your life that was fright­en­ing. Read­ing a “real” book calms me, too. Read­ing your post fills me with love.

Laura Purdie Salas
Laura Purdie Salas
3 years ago

The whole All Crea­tures Great and Small set was a favorite of mine as a pre-teen/­teen. I haven’t seen the new series, but I just lis­tened to ACGS audio nar­rat­ed by some­one from the new series. Fab­u­lous. I loved your tale of com­fort­ing your­self and your son with books – off to look for that par­tic­u­lar tale. I’ve read most of Her­riot’s books – but not that one!

Laura Harrison
Laura Harrison
2 years ago

The books and movies do trans­port you to a gen­tle world and while still rel­e­vant also give us a break from today’s chaos. I cer­tain­ly enjoy every eccen­tric char­ac­ter and how the sto­ries are woven togeth­er with respect and appre­ci­a­tion of all peo­ple and ani­mals. Loved your arti­cle and found you brought out the great­ness of the books and PBS series.