Nonfiction: Memoir. St. Martin's Griffin: 1972. 437 pp.
On the surface, this book shouldn't have been that interesting to me. James Herriot is writing as a young veterinarian in the U.K., recently graduated from school and beginning his first job. He find work with a small country veterinarian, who handles every species from cat to cow -- and everything in between.
But Herriot's writing style had me hooked from the beginning. The opening scene brings us right into a calving, and it's not going all that well. And yet I could feel the intensity, I could put myself in that barn and I could imagine what it would have been like (despite the fact that I am neither a citizen of the U.K. or a veterinarian).
Each chapter of this book is almost it's own little story. We get to see different perspectives on Herriot's life and work -- from handling patients (and their owners), to working with his boss and colleagues, and interacting with the community.
Sometimes in reading books from the Book Roulette, it's hard to come up with a takeaway for other writers. That is, after all, the goal as I read through this list. But with All Creatures Great And Small it was rather easy. This book is a must-read for anyone writing creative non-fiction or memoir, and a great example of how to write within this genre. A few key points:
- Herriot does not start at his birth and write about his entire life. This is perhaps what I see most in memoirs from young (or old) self-published authors. All Creatures Great and Small has a specific focus within the scope of Herriot's life -- his early years as a country veterinarian. And all of his stories relate back to this topic.
- He includes both high and low points from this time. It's easy when writing about a tragedy to forget about (or omit) the enjoyable moments that speckle this otherwise dark time. And yet, the books we remember and cherish include both. This one certainly does -- Herriot does not shy away from the challenges he faced, and nor does he forget about the triumphs or funny moments. Both are necessary for a developed and impactful story.
- He is in a field with very technical language, and yet his writing is accessible to laymen. I see this in both fiction and nonfiction, by authors of all different backgrounds. My mother (also a writer) told me to "write to a second-grade reading level." This does not mean "dumb it down," but rather use language that is accessible to everyone. Certainly, Herriot could have been very technical here, and use language that was and is common to his field. But that would limit the scope of his audience, and lessened the impact of his story to everyone else.