JAMES HERRIOT IS back, thank goodness, and just in time. What with terrorism, the economy in shreds, and my car falling apart, I desperately need the balm of some escapist literature. Robert Ludlum and Stephen King needn't apply. When I want bullets and gore I can pick up the newspaper or watch TV. I'd rather escape to better times, to the Yorkshire Dales, to ride with this great-hearted country veterinarian across "the miles of heathery moorland and the rounded summits of the great hills slumbering into the sunshine."
Herriot's three previous books described his life and times from the 1930s through the start of World War II. This volume brings us into the 1950s. Herriot and his wife Helen are still living at Skeldale House, their combination surgery and living quarters. Siegfried Farnon, Herriot's head-strong partner is an bumptious as ever, clapping Jim on the back and charging full steam ahead into everything. But Tristan, Siegfried's irrepressible brother, has left the practice for a career with the Ministry of Agriculture. Devoted readers who enjoyed Sigfried and Tristan's adventures in the earlier books may be disappointed this time. The pair make entertaining but limited appearances. And Helen, alas, does little more in this book than cook a Yorkshire pudding.
But there are plenty of new oddballs to delight in, all made real by Herriot's skilled characterizations: Meet the beautiful Miss Grantly, who sends cocoa tins filled with goat droppings to show her approval; Josh the barber, who reads the mind of man or dog merely by fingering their hair ("Them hairs go right down into your head, and they catch summat from your brain and send it up to me"); Farmer Jack Scott, whose love for his paralyzed dog and brain diseased calf reverses their "hopeless" condition.
And there's Herriot himself, "fundamentally a solid citizen," as he says, "but every now and then I do something daft." Like the time he finds himself facing the curved horns of a mean-eyed Ayrshire bull. Herriot's assumed, with his usual optimism, that the new technique of artificial insemination "shouldn't be much trouble. I had never seen it done but had flipped through a pamphlet on the subject and it seemed simple enough."
Right. All he has to do is collect some semen by tricking the bull into using an artificial vagina, an 18-inch long tube of vulcanized rubber and latex. Herriot waits until the already peevish animal mounts the cow, then he shoves the eratz organ between them.
But the bull hasn't read the pamphlet.
"He snorted, shook the needle-sharp horns in my direction and dragged a little straw along the floor with a hoof before fixing me with a long, appraising stare. He didn't have to speak; his message was unequivocal. Just try that once more, chum, and you've had it."
He does try again and ends up using the artificial vagina to fight off the charging bull "with thrusts and lunges worthy of a fencing master."
The farmer watches this scene, fascinated. "By Gaw, Mr. Herriot, it's a 'ell of a job, this A.I., isn't it?"
This is Herriot at his best, the Buster Keaton of veterinary medicine, able to make us laugh, cry or nod in agreement with some snippet of universal truth.
And he tries something new in this book. Interspersed with the familiar stories of Yorkshire are accounts of journeys Herriot made in the early 1960s. One was a voyage to Russia accompanying hundreds of pedigree Romney Marsh and Lincoln sheep. Herriot proves as doughty as evr, tending sheep and eating heartily "hamburgers followed by a chocolate soup . . . sauerkraut cooked in butter, milk and flour and mixed with potatoes" even as the little ship rolls and crashed through the raging Baltic. The other tale describes a tricky flight to Turkey on a dilapidated Globemaster carrying 40 Jersey cows. Herriot and the two farmers with him get marooned in Istanbul, inadvertently crash a local wedding, and face a harrowing flight home over the Alps in the disabled plane.
Unfortunately, some of this material falls flat, a rarity in a Herriot book. His conversations with Russian teachers about Soviet life, as well as the diary excerpts describing his seaport explorations are often overlong and aimless. Loyal fans more accustomed to action and surprises may find themselves impatient, as though they were trapped watching the good doctor's vacation slides.
Yet Herriot is such a charmer, such a thoroughly likable, decent chap, that his fans would watch his slides and enjoy them. After all, how can you fault a man who never refuses a night call to a stricken animal, who risks death by skiing into a blizzard to save a litter of pigs, who finds bliss just watching his children play, and who believes that "life has been good to us and is still good to us." If James Herriot didn't exist, Frank Capra would have invented him.