Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Won over by James Herriot

I discovered James Herriot a long time ago. His books are not really for young children, but can be easily read and appreciated by older children, probably 13+ ones. With typically gentle and wry British humour, Herriot, whose real life name as a vet in Yorkshire, was James Alfred Wight, brings to us the life in typical Yorkshire villages. A few years back, during our stay in the UK, a visit to Thirsk, the village in Yorkshire in which he lived and practised, was a not-to-be-missed-opportunity. Herriot has immortalised this village as Darrowby in his books. We realised how powerfully he had potrayed the sprawling Yorkshire moors (also a setting for another well loved classic- Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte.) and the life of the locals, complete with their dialect- as we could identify it immediately, essentially unchanged for the many years since the books had been written.

So when I found these picture books by him a few years back, I grabbed them immediately. Here was my opportunity to introduce this wonderful writer to A, then all of 6 yrs old. All of them have complete, single stories suitable for the age group of 4-8 years. Published by St Martin's Press.

Pic courtesy goodreads.com

A stray cat regularly visits Mrs Pickering's house, where James Herriot regularly goes to check on her three Basset hounds. The cat, a timid tabby named Debbie by Mrs Pickering, creeps in a few times each week, eats the food given to her, spends some time in the warmth of the sitting room in front of the fireplace, and then and goes away. No-one knows where she lives.

On Christmas day, a dying Debbie comes to Mrs Pickering's house with her precious cargo- her kitten. She leaves it in the care of the only place where she has known warmth and love. How this Christmas Day kitten, named Buster by Mrs Pickering, makes it his home is for the reader to find out.

A lovely story that touches a child's heart. With all the warmth associated with Christmas.

Pic courtesy goodreads.com

One Market Day, James Herriot notices an unknown dog, obviously a stray, begging at the various stalls for food. The dog has "two friendly brown eyes ... in a wonderfully attractive face", a friendly wag of his tail for Herriot when spoken to, but would not be caught.

One day, the local police constable, Phelps, comes to Herriot's surgery with an injured animal- the Market Square dog, who had been found knocked down by the roadside, just outside the town. The vet does all he can for the dog, visiting him at the public kennels as he heals. Over the next few weeks, people come for many of the other dogs, but not for our stray.

What happens next? Does he find a home? Who are the lucky ones who get this very lovable and friendly stray as their pet? Read to find out.

Pic courtesy fantasticfiction.co.uk

The Herriots adopt a stray cat brought to them in a very weak condition. They nurse him back to health, and name him Oscar.

Now Oscar proves himself to be a very sociable cat. He is missing one day, and after a lot of searching, they find him with the judges at a Women's Institute hat making competition! Over the next few months, he goes missing many times, but the Herriots know that they would find him at some social do, including, among other things, a soccer match at the local school and a rummage sale at the Town Hall.

"Now we know," said Helen.
I nodded. "Yes, when he disappears, he isn't running away at all. He's just visiting. He likes getting along, he loves people, especially in groups, and he is interested in what they do. He's a natural mixer."
Helen looked down at our cat. "Of course, that's it ... he's a socialite!"
"A cat-about-town!"

Pic courtesy fantasticfiction.co.uk

Blossom is an old, placid cow belonging to Farmer Dakin. She has been a good milk-cow for more than twelve years. But Dakin is a poor farmer, and cannot afford to keep a cow that is not productive, and he need the space in the stall for a younger cow. So, he does what all poor farmers do. Sells her very regretfully to a knacker on market day.

So what does the placid Blossom do? How does she come back home, where the farmer knows she truly belongs?

Here Herriot has potrayed the difficult decisions with which these poor farmers, deeply attached to their animals, are faced with. A wonderful book.

Pic courtesy amazon.com
Bonny and Dolly are 20-yr-old workhorses belonging to a taciturn farmer, Mr Skipton. Although they can no longer work for him, he keeps them "down by the river", where he goes at least once every day, with a pitchforkful of freash hay, a steep climb for the old man. But he loves them, and although he has "no time for pets an' such", the horses are like pets to him.

So when the time comes for the Darrowby Pet Fair Show, Herriot suggests that Mr Skipton enter his horse, Bonny. An idea that the gruff old weatherbeaten farmer scoffs at.

What happens next stands testimony to these men's love of their animals. And the value they place by them.

There are a few more books in these series, which I would love to get my hands on. Moses the KittenSmudge, the Little Lost Lamb , Only One Woof, are some of these.

All these stories by James Herriot carry his trademark warmth and his love for the animals, the bleak Yorkshire moors, and the people who live by this land. The distinct personalities of the animals and the people, revealed through the flow of the stories, makes for richly layered stories.

Although some of them had a note of sadness to the tale, the resolution to a happy ending made them extremely enjoyable. Leading A to read and re-read them many times on her own after we had been through the read-aloud sessions, many times over.

The illustrations by Ruth Brown are full page, often spilling over onto the adjacent page, making these books perfect picture books inspite of the extensive text. A biography says this about her work-  "Known for her delicate use of watercolors, her particular love of cats, and her realistic and atmospheric representations of rural life, she has been particularly praised for her richly textured and colored artwork." Making her the perfect choice for a picture book by James Herriot.


Choxbox said...

Thanks for this S. My opinion was sort of ambiguous - perhaps because I’d come across a couple of his works which clearly were not age-appropriate for my (then) 7 year old. Time to take a fresh look at this author’s works I guess, there are some unexplored gems I can see. So thanks again!

ranjani.sathish said...

Wonderful Sandhya ! So nice to see so many books of the same author detailed here..thanks. The animals based stories are always a big hit with the children. Will definitely look out for these.

Anuradha Shankar said...

This is interesting !I had no idea of these books.... shall try to get hold of them!

wordjunkie said...

Great review, S.
I have loved Herriot's books since discovering him in my school library when I was eleven. His memoirs - a series of eight or nine books, all written in that characteristic gentle, humorous voice of his- are big favourites at home. The Imp especially loves the stories of his kids and their antics.

Why age inappropriate, though, Chox?

Choxbox said...

@WJ: Don’t remember specifics, will hunt the book in Q down and get back. I do remember being a little taken aback because the author had been highly reco-ed by a friend.

artnavy said...

Have not read any of these... will try at the library for them!

sathish said...

Thanks to your review, we picked one of his books from library.

sandhya said...

@Choxbox: We need to have a talk re Herriot. Will call. Better still, will send said books through the kids' book swap arrangement!:)

@Ranjani: Thanks. The kids will love these, I'm sure. I think the library has some of them.

@Anu: You should!:)

@WJ: Thanks. We love all the Herriot books, too. And I think A is now old enough to read the original too, not just the picture books.

@artnavy: Anush will love them!

@Satish: That's great. Happy reading. Do let us know how it went.

Marjorie said...

I grew up with James Herriot too - partly because of the TV series -and now live not far from Thirsk. If you ever come back again... :-)

It was only recently that I too discovered Herriot's children's stories - I love The Christmas Day Kitten and very seasonal at the moment as we have so much snow at the moment! I've also long been a fan of Ruth Brown's illustrations.

sandhya said...

@Marjorie: Welcome here, and thanks for your comment.
I would have loved to see the TV series on Herriot's books. The one regret I have about our visit to Thirsk was that we didn't buy a set of the whole series on DVD that we found there. They were beyond our budget at the time. I never did see them again anywhere, not even our local library when in Britain.:(
Of course I would love to visit if we're ever there again. Thanks.

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