The Life of a Country Vet
by Graham Lord
James Herriot is one of my all-time favorite authors. I have all five of his books on my shelf, used to have a collection of cat stories too, until I realized that was redundant (the stories being selected from the other books). My children have a few of the picture-book versions on their shelf, too. So I was curious to read this biography when I found it at the library.
The first thing I learned was that the real Herriot is named Alfred Wight, and the real James Herriot is a footballer (soccer player)- Wight was an avid soccer fan and used the name of one of his favorite players. I read about Wight\’s parents and his childhood in poverty-stricken Glasgow during the 1920\’s. The book started to get interesting when it reached Wight\’s years in veterinary college. He dreamed of working with small animals- cats and dogs- but work was hard to find so he took a position in a Yorkshire practice that mainly served farmers. According to Graham Lord (who knew the man personally), Wight had always kept diaries, was an intelligent well-read man, and practiced his writing skills with dedication. He didn\’t get his first book published until he was in his fifties, and the big story of this book is how that amazing success came about, and then just kept growing. Wight based his stories on real life, but changed a lot of facts, names, personalities to keep characters\’ true identities obscured (though that didn\’t last- some were incensed to find how they had been portrayed, others flattered), rearranged dates to suit his narrative, used anecdotes and tales told in veterinary school, and purely invented others. In short, his books are more than fifty percent fictional. But the basis in reality is so solid that they feel true, and are so well-written, warm and funny and down-to-earth that they became wildly popular. So I was right when I shelved my collection of Herriot books among the fiction.
It was revealing to read about the struggles in Wight\’s life, about his personal crises and health issues, his private griefs. For me the best part of the biography were the chapters that described his experiences with the publication process, how his growing fame changed the village he lived in, how he refused to let it change his life, even when in later years fans were lining up outside his surgery door every morning for autographs. He was always kind and friendly to his readers, but got sometimes got upset at their intrusion as well. He continued working as a vet, even when he was a multimillionaire and didn\’t need to, and others urged him to just take up writing full-time. Being a vet was his life, writing was on the side. I admired that.
Rating: 3/5 276 pages, 1997