Coming Home and Being Known: James Herriot and the Search for Home

By Saturday, March 05, 2022


Image via Masterpiece PBS on Facebook

“Home” conjures up varied images and phrases. “Home is where the heart is” may now ring with trite familiarity for many. Dorothy Gale ensured that generations would grow up knowing “there’s no place like home.” Philosophers, authors, and filmmakers alike keep returning to it, tapping into a yearning for “home” that I think is innate in everyone.

The new TV adaptation of James Herriot’s delightful veterinary adventures, All Creatures Great and Small, has captured the age-old narrative of search for home with fresh vibrancy and charm. Inundated as we are with information and noise, the many shots of northern England’s rolling hills perhaps speak to our modern souls’ longing not only for escape, but for a lost era of greater simplicity and quiet. Many young viewers also likely feel affinity for James Herriot himself, a fresh graduate of veterinary school, eager to find his place in the world and prove himself.

James’s desires for belonging and stability run like a bubbling current beneath each episode. He initially leaves for Yorkshire simply hoping for steady work, but in the months following, finds himself wrestling with where his true future lies. In clever narrative irony, his bustling hometown of Glasgow represents familiarity and security, while far-flung, unsophisticated Yorkshire brings new possibilities he didn’t know to look for.

Possibilities like… giving life-saving treatment to a struggling widow’s cattle herd twice in the same year, and thereby rescuing her and her children’s livelihood. Offering hope to a farmer whose livelihood rests on the recovery of his only cow or only herd of sheep.

On a deeper level, James finds an unexpected family at Skeldale House, which serves as both the veterinary office and an inviting place to live. Mrs. Hall runs it with steady, no-nonsense care and efficiency. Amazingly, she still manages to let eccentric head veterinarian, Siegfried Farnon, imagine that he’s the one directing everything. Siegfried’s lovable and roguish younger brother, Tristan, brings needed humor and easy friendship to James’s life. And perhaps most tender of all, James falls in love with local beauty, Helen Alderson, capable and gentle and whip-smart, almost as soon as he arrives in Darrowby. She challenges and encourages James with an honesty he’s never before encountered and, as for so many others in the Dales, farming runs in her blood.

In tending the farm animals of the Dales and settling into Skeldale House, James forges trust with this community, generative farming folk who, while perhaps a bit stuck in their ways, demonstrate unwavering devotion to their home, for home it is. The land isn’t simply a means of provision, but an identity and a way of life. The farmers don’t simply work the land, but know it deeply.

Similarly, Siegfried and Tristan and Mrs. Hall don’t merely live in Darrowby, but know its every quirk and tradition and occupant. The people depend on them and they repay it in kind by offering their home as a place of care for the community’s animals, as well as of refuge and rest for the people when needed. Every Christmas, it transforms into a haven of festivity and companionship. Many in Darrowby find a friend in both their joys and sorrows at the hearth of Skeldale House. In short, the people of the Dales take the time to really know one another.

I think that’s what James finds in Yorkshire when he didn’t even realize he was looking for it. I think it’s what so many of us want in a home. A space to know and be known. A Mrs. Hall to notice when we just need a chat and a cup of tea. A Tristan to make us laugh or a Helen to challenge us to higher things. A community to truly know and serve well with our work and resources. And to the delight of many eager Anglophiles and romantics like myself, James does eventually recognize that these are the things that make a home. Glasgow may offer comfort in the traditional sense, but Yorkshire’s unruly farmlands and quirky people have brought him in and shown him family in a far deeper way.

A few weeks ago, I sat in rapt pleasure as I watched the closing episodes of the recent second series of All Creatures, in which James finally realizes that he’s found a true and lasting home in the Yorkshire Dales. His heart now swells with knowing affection when he casts awe-inspired eyes over the undulating emerald hills of the Dales. The farmers and laborers of Darrowby have worked their way into his heart with their stubborn traditions and bone-deep affection for the wild, unpredictable land. Skeldale House has become not only a place of employment, but a sanctuary of warmth, peace, and companionship. In the episode’s final moments, not even the foreboding buzz of war planes overhead can dampen the spirit of celebration and comradeship inside Skeldale House. Whatever joy or sorrow may be ahead, James has come home.

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