Review of All Creatures Great and Small, by James Herriot
By ALEXIS NEAL
First things first: If you have never read this book, read it. I’m not kidding. You can watch the television series, if you like—it’s quite good—but please read it as well. I’m sure they have copies at your local library, and at bookstores (of course, whether they still have bookstores may be another matter entirely). You can even read it on your Kindle. Just read it. You won’t be sorry.
I first stumbled across this gem as a fairly young child with an obsessive love of animals and a voracious appetite for the written word. Through James Herriot’s delightful books, I beheld the difficult life of a large animal vet, reading with horrified awe as he related in fairly gruesome detail the realities of early twentieth century field medicine. I basked in the harsh beauty of the Yorkshire dales, and dwelt among the leather-tough (yet somehow simultaneously generous and gruffly charming) people who occupied this forbidding land. I chuckled at Herriot’s affectionate descriptions of the eccentric, old-world farmers, and laughed outright at the foibles and quirks of his partners and co-workers. And when 1940’s veterinary medicine failed to provide a cure, I confess I even shed a few tears.
Don’t be misled. This is not a crying book. Herriot’s writing is possessed of a good-natured jollity that invests even the bleakest tales with good humor and optimism. A vivid account of a late-night call in the freezing wind, stripped to the waist and soaking wet, with his arm up a cow’s backside and a group of stoic, unsympathetic farmers looking on, will be followed by a sincere reflection on his incredible good fortune to live and work in this forbidding yet beautiful land. While Herriot is occasionally discouraged or frustrated by his clients’ lack of appreciation (or their persistence in adhering to the utterly nonsensical folk cures their fathers swore by), it is never long before Herriot’s good temper wins out and he is restored to his customary cheerfulness and humble gratitude.
Perhaps most striking of all—at least to me—is Herriot’s indefatigable patience. Granted, patience is a virtue which I have never been accused of possessing in over-abundance. I am frequently frustrated by circumstantial setbacks, human folly, the inability of the UPS man to deliver packages in a timely fashion, and any number of technological glitches inflicted on me by computers/websites/smart phones/etc. In short, I am frustrated by anything and everything. So it is with no small amount of fascination—and a good deal of envy—that I read of Herriot’s seemingly limitless patience.
Granted, these books are only loosely autobiographical, and are told from Herriot’s own perspective. And we are often more patient (or virtuous, or humble) in our own eyes than we are in the eyes of others. After all, when I tell a story, I tend to do so in a way that casts my own actions in a slightly more flattering light, even if such a skew is unintentional. I perceive myself—and my reactions—as eminently reasonable; others may disagree. So I freely admit that Herriot (or rather, Alfred Wight; Herriot is just a pen name) may suffer from a similar tendency, and the stories of others’ idiosyncrasies and misadventures, and Herriot’s own long-suffering, may not be entirely accurate.
That being said, the character of James Herriot, as presented in this book, is an impressive example of patience, and he has, on more than one occasion, spurred me on to examine my own impatience, particularly in light of the Bible’s teaching on the subject.
As a purely practical matter, the Bible tells us that patience is, quite simply, a good idea. It’s common sense. Patience leads to wisdom and understanding (Proverbs 14:29; Proverbs 19:11), and it helps us resolve conflict (Proverbs 15:18). As achievements go, it is far more valuable to be able to patiently face difficulties than it is to triumph over those same difficulties. (Proverbs 16:32) No matter who you are or what you believe about God, patience is a good and useful and beneficial virtue to develop and possess.
However, as Christians, we have an additional obligation. We are explicitly commanded to be patient. (Romans 12:12; Ephesians 4:2; I Thessalonians 5:14) Patience is a necessary component of love—if we are not patient people, there is a legitimate reason to doubt our love. (I Corinthians 13:4-8) Patience is a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23), which indeed tells us just why it matters so much to God. Patience is a fruit or product of His Spirit, because it is part of His character.
In the Old Testament, the Lord is described time and time again as being ‘slow to anger’. (Exodus 34:5-7) This is demonstrated clearly through His gracious response to the unwavering pattern of sin and rebellion by His chosen people, Israel. Although God chose to bless them and make them His own—not as a result of any merit in them but only out of His goodness and mercy and love (Deuteronomy 7:7-9)—the people of Israel kept falling away from Him. More than that, they prostituted themselves by worshiping false gods. (Nehemiah 9:16-18) Even though the one true God was right there with them, they chose powerless, man-made gods instead. Yet despite this, the Lord never completely abandoned them. He punished them, yes, and disciplined them, and some very unpleasant things happened to the nation of Israel over the years. But He never completely destroyed them, and the punishments he exacted were never as bad as what Israel deserved. He preserved a remnant, and He Himself made a way for His disobedient and treacherous people to repent and be restored to fellowship with Him. (Joel 2:13) This is why the psalmists repeatedly praise God for His patience toward His people. (Psalm 86:15; Psalm 103:8; Psalm 145:8)
This pattern continues in the New Testament, as the patience of God culminates in the figure of Christ, sent to live as a man and die a horrible, shameful death for the sins we all committed, that we might be saved to eternal life and fellowship with Him. (I Peter 3:15) The Lord demonstrated His perfect patience by showing mercy to sinners. (I Timothy 1:16) And as we stumble along the road to sanctification, suffering setback after setback, slipping, sliding, and backsliding all the way, He does not despair of us or abandon us or throw in the towel. He continues to keep us and work in us and through us to make us into His holy people. (Romans 7:15-25; And every day that He prolongs His return and judgment, He shows still more patience, allowing still more sinners the chance to repent, believe, and be saved. (II Peter 3:9)
Christians, then, are to show patience for two reasons. First, God is patient, and we have been made in His image and are to reflect His character (at least with regard to his communicable attributes). (Matthew 5:48; Ephesians 5:1) We are indwelt by His Spirit, and should live in a manner consistent with the character of Him who lives in us. But God is not merely objectively patient. He is—and has been—patient with us. We have sinned against Him, aggrieved Him, rebelled against Him, and sought to steal for ourselves the glory due His name. Yet He responded to our supremely unpleasant and hostile behavior with patience and forgiveness. So then, as we face difficulties, struggles, annoyances, and irritations, we should respond with some small reflection of the patience He has showed us. (Colossians 3:12-13) The world is full of irritating—even infuriating—people, but no one has ever aggravated me to the extent that my actions have aggravated the Living God. And that ought to be more than enough to make me so patient that I make James Herriot look like a walking temper-tantrum.
Alexis Neal is an attorney in the Washington, D.C., area. She regularly reviews young adult literature at www.childrensbooksandreviews.com and everything else at quantum-meruit.blogspot.com.