Friday, May 29, 2015

"All Creatures Great and Small" by James Herriot (1972)

There are few phrases you enjoy hearing more than "Hey, Sam, I got you a book!" Your long time friend Tim Crawford said this to you not long ago and since he is the single most well read person you have ever had the pleasure of knowing you were excited to see what literary gem he was going to bequeath to you. You were surprised when he handed you a copy of "All Creatures Great and Small." He was a touch giddy and smiling as he handed it over as if you should be equally excited and maybe even honored since everyone has heard of this classic. Naturally you felt like an ass for having no idea what it was. He told you that he had read it several times because it was so enjoyable adding the most interesting endorsement you've ever heard for a book. "I found it on sale at Book People. The woman who sold it to me told me that in the ten years she'd been working there, she'd never seen James Herriot go on sale. That's how good this book is." Within a few days you were buried in its pages and realized that Tim and the woman at Book People were right, this book never needs to go on sale.

"All Creatures Great and Small" is a memoir of a country veterinarian in northern England in the 1930's. James Herriot is not the author's real name, he changed his own name and those of many of the book's characters to protect their anonymity. Immediately after graduating from college Herriot finds himself in Yorkshire hoping for a job interview. His potential employer is nowhere to be found once Herriot arrives at the vet's office, so Herriot begins answering rings on the doorbell and dispensing advice and making diagnoses as if he had any real world experience at all, which he does not. Eventually Herriot's would-be employer arrives and, unsurprisingly, hires him on the spot.

Herriot is instantly smitten with the parade of rural characters revolving through the office doors. The Yorkshire Dales are the hills and mountains that form the border between England and Scotland and the folks who live there have never really felt they belonged to either country. This instills in them a fierce self reliance and thriftiness that rings familiar to your Texan heart. The way Herriot writes it, Yorkshire sounds almost like The Shire in the real world. The folks are humble and kind and hearty with an endearing loyalty to family and a love of food and drink. Some barely move a muscle to help the young vet perform his jobs and others literally chase after and tackle bulls with their bare hands to assist Herriot in his endeavors.

One elderly widow called Madame Pumphrey becomes smitten with Herriot and her precious Pekingese adopts him as his uncle. Tricki-Woo, because what else would you name an over pampered Pekingese, showers Herriot with care packages in the mail and invitations to posh parties attended by the very finest of Yorkshire's upper crust. Herriot's adventures in meeting such a cast of eccentric and lovable people made you laugh out loud often in public places.

It was simply one of the most charming books you've read in years. Each chapter forms it's own perfectly crafted story. The book is almost episodic, which is ironic considering it spawned more than one sequel, a movie, and a long-running British TV show.

Herriot writes his dialogue phonetically, like Mark Twain often did, to try and capture the particular pronunciations he heard while in his practice. When arguing the lineage of a cow to be examined by Herriot, one farmer begins debating with his sons. "She was bought in, wasn't she? 'Nay, nay, she's out of awd Dribbler.' 'Don't think so-- Dribbler had nowt but bulls." Quotes like that bring you into the story in a way that a more clean prose simply can't do. It forces you to sound out the words the way the people who are now long dead and gone said them at the time, it brings the language back to life for a brief moment. It serves to make you the conduit for a momentary resurrection, if not of the people, of the time and place they existed.

Each call on the office phone brings Herriot out to far flung highlands and remote farms dealing with everything from cows suffering from difficult birthings to a horse whose intestines are twisted up too badly to survive. Herriot's boss Sigfried and his brother Tristan (what in the hell kind of names are those in Yorkshire?!) help guide Herriot into his new life and ease his transition into the fabric of his adopted society. The farmers and their families suffer from a natural generosity and help to ease his transition too by heaping pounds of homemade bacon and sausages and butter on Herriot in addition to insisting that he "come in for a drink" after every job is completed.

Through the course of the book it is clear that Herriot has become smitten with more than just the citizens of Yorkshire Dales. The landscape of Yorkshire itself becomes as much a character as the people. The haunting lonely highlands and the suicidally steep valleys are clearly enchanting to him. He makes a spring day high in the Dales sound like a piece of heaven and a sudden blizzard on a barren farmland feel like a slice of hell. Herriot quickly adopts the landscape into his heart and revels in the knowledge that his job allows him the freedom to roam this new found glorious countryside. Even in the closing moments of the book, working side by side with his new beautiful wife, Herriot is more interested in describing the majesty of the land around them than the charms of his new bride. In the Dales that form the transition between England and Scotland, Herriot found his home.

But it is not only the land that serves as a transition in the book, a place where one nation becomes another, a region between urban and rural, it is the time that is a transition as well. The 1930's were an in-between era for the western world, a region between the two greatest wars in human history, a transition between the ancient and the modern ways of life. Herriot describes his charge as a country vet as almost sacred in this decade because most of the people in Yorkshire still relied on horses for everything from transportation to providing the muscle power to pull a plow or wagon. Cars were scarce and terrifyingly unsafe. Corporations hadn't yet taken over the raising of livestock so the health of an individual cow could represent and entire family's future well being. Medical practices that would become common place within a few years seemed new and alien. The art of veterinary science still featured a dramatic flare held over from a now bygone era, an era when it was natural for a vet to employ a "therapeutic compound" more for it's tendency to create an impressive puff of purple smoke to awe the farmers more than its tendency to actually heal anything.

The stories are no doubt embellished to the point they might be unrecognizable to the men and women who participated in them, but who cares? It matters less that Herriot got the facts right than that he got the feeling right. "All Creatures Great and Small" felt wonderful. It made you envious of a humble man who lived in a much harder time in a more unforgiving place doing much more difficult work. It's good to be reminded that a humble life can still be an enviable one and that making an impact right where you live can be far more meaningful than seeking false significance and fleeting fame on a larger stage.

On to the next book!

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

"Slave Nation" by Alfred and Ruth Blumrosen (2005)

After reading "John Adams" by David McCullough last summer you began thinking about the odd contradictions of the existence of slavery in the United States even in the moment of its birth. You were fascinated by the juxtaposition of the image of America's Founding Fathers gathering together in Philadelphia in 1776 hailing from such wildly different backgrounds. The fact that some of the men who created a nation based on the idea that all people are created equal could own human beings and force labor from them at the threat of a whip or worse is something you cannot quite wrap your brain around. So, you've kept your eye open for any interesting books on the subject. When you opened this one in the store and saw that the introduction was by Eleanor Holmes Norton, you knew you had to read it.

World War One started with a random assassination that no one thought would be that big of a deal. It ended up being one of the single most influential events in modern political and military history. In 1772 an English chief justice ruled on a case before his court, a case as seemingly inconsequential as an assassination of an obscure royal family member 143 years later, but whose implications had ramifications that were possibly equally as momentous.

In October 1771, a slave named Somerset ran away from his master, an influential Virginian named James Stewart. Stewart and Somerset had been living in England for only two or three years when Somerset ran away. Before that they had lived in the British colony of Virginia. Slavery was still perfectly legal throughout the British empire, but more and more cases were piling up in British courts trying to clarify exactly how legal slavery was in England, on the island of Great Britain itself. No one was quite sure what the law would say about holding someone against their will. Several cases had been brought to the Court of the King's Bench, the oldest and highest common law court in England, but the chief justice, Lord Mansfield, had always managed to avoid having to rule in any clear cut way about the legal status of runaway slaves. He was always able to convince the owners to let their slaves go free rather than bargain that the courts of England would take the opportunity to outlaw slavery all together.

Feeling betrayed by his long time personal assistant, (not that Somerset would call himself an "assistant") Stewart hired slave catchers who caught Somerset and took him back to a ship bound for Jamaica, where he would be sold off. In his brief time in London, Somerset had made many influential friends. Some of those friends became his godparents and were quick to come to his rescue, bringing Somerset's case to Lord Mansfield and insisting that the captain of the slave ship had no right to hold Somerset, a British subject, against his will. Stewart refused to free Somerset as so many others had done under pressure from Lord Mansfield. The Chief Justice tried to reason with Stewart, warning him that he might not like the ruling if he forced the court's hand into making a clear judgment, but Stewart was being financed and encouraged by the slave traders of the West Indies who had a financial interest in clarifying the legality of their business model throughout the empire (how awful is it to think of the buying and selling of human beings as a legitimate business model?). Stewart's intransigence forced Mansfield's hand. He had to make a ruling.

On June 22, 1772, he did. "The state of slavery is... so odious, that nothing can support it but positive law... I cannot say that this case (or slavery in general) is allowed or approved by the law of England: and therefore the black (Somerset) must be discharged." You had to look up what the phrase 'positive law' meant in order to understand this ruling. Basically, it's the legal version of the status quo, a way of saying that 'it is that way because it's sort of just always been that way.' This ruling had huge ramifications throughout the vast British empire, upon which the sun never set. The Blumrosens say that this ruling is the spark that ignited the American Revolution which makes it even more shocking that you and most other Americans have never heard of it.

It is remarkable that so much hung in the balance over the actions of one man. By running away, Somerset was shaping the course of western civilization. But this was no Alexander, no Napoleon, no Genghis Khan. He was a simple slave, stolen from his homeland and thrust into an alien world. Then again, Somerset was not intending to set off any revolution. He merely wanted his freedom. His case is a reminder that everyday average people really can shape the world simply by doing what they know is right.

In the British colonies in North America, tensions had been mounting as Parliament enacted tax after tax on the colonists only to repeal each successive tax under outraged public protests from the colonists. Throughout the mid 1700's the British government was being seen more and more as a threat to the self-rule the colonists had come to love. Suddenly the highest court in England had described slavery as something so odious that it couldn't be allowed under any laws in England. Not only was the entire economic model of the southern colonies built upon slavery, but many industrialists from the northern colonies relied on the odious institution for their bread and butter as well. After the Somerset decision, colonies which would never have been interested in independence over some paltry taxes suddenly felt their very way of life threatened. When faced with the prospect of independence, everyone who profited from slavery had to ask themselves which they valued more, their identity as Englishmen and subjects of the crown... or the preservation of their very way of life.

As the flames of revolution began to spread, some of the northerners who usually identified themselves as antislavery were willing to compromise their values for the sake of independence. They were also motivated by the pragmatic realization that any law immediately abolishing slavery would inevitably flood the streets and fields of the South with uneducated, physically impressive, freed slaves who might understandably have vengeance on their minds. Not to mention that Massachusetts, the seat of the rebellion while the Continental Congress was in session, was occupied by British forces and under marshal law, so it was imperative that they secure allies in the struggle for independence. Virginia was the wealthiest, most populace, and arguably the most influential of all the colonies. Taking a hard line against slavery would have run Virginia from the conference and insured that Massachusetts would have remained a colony with an English boot on her throat.

In 1774 the First Continental Congress issued their Declaration on the Rights of the American Colonies. John Adams himself penned the fateful Article IV of the Declaration which declared colonial independence from Parliament's power, but not yet from the authority of the king. It was Adams' attempt to marry northern complaints of "taxation without representation" to the southern fears that Parliament would soon outlaw slavery, and Adams knew full well that Parliament would never accept it. He was right. Parliament was outraged by the Declaration and Article IV was the thing that assured that there would be a War for American Independence, and it was a direct result of the abolitionist John Adams trying to reconcile southern fears for the preservation of slavery with the rest of the colonies' desire for independence.

Within weeks, British forces were doing more than merely occupying Boston. They sought out colonial weapons caches and ammunition depots, beginning with those at Lexington and Concord. The bloodshed there, the shot heard 'round the world, made it clear that a Second Continental Congress would need to be assembled.

This Second Continental Congress would be the one to not only issue the Declaration of Independence, but also establish the Articles of Confederation, the first government of the United States. After the war ended and the revolution had birthed a new nation on this continent, the Articles proved too weak to hold the states together as a nation. The Articles of Confederation failed specifically because they created such a weak central federal government in favor of more powerful individual sovereign state governments. There was no concept yet in the newly formed United States of any American national citizenship, so the citizens of each state thought of themselves as Virginians or Georgians first, not Americans. Each state would retain its sovereignty in every situation... except one.

Each state was free to determine the legality of slavery within its borders, but the southerners who were founding the new nation insisted that they be guaranteed that slaves would be considered property even in states that outlawed the odious institution.The last thing they wanted was to visit a free state and have their slave run away claiming that the slave master had no legal claim to keep him in bondage against his will. Even though it was antithetical to their states rights mantra, the representatives from the slave states insisted that the free states recognize that slaves were property, not human beings. This was a direct result of the Somerset case in England four years before.

In 1787 the Constitutional Congress which had been called to replace the Articles of Confederation almost ended in a complete dissolution of the entire union. Tradition teaches that the main point of contention was a disagreement between the larger states and the smaller ones about whether representation in the new government would be equal or whether it would be based on population count (their compromise is why we have a Senate and a House of Representatives). The Blumrosens contend however, that the real issue was actually a fight between the slave states and the free states over the fate of land west of the Appalachians. Virginia had claimed the vast area for itself for future settlement, while the New England states insisted that the area be set aside for themselves and that slavery be declared illegal in these northwestern territories. In the end the northern states won. Slavery was declared illegal above the Ohio river. The lines of the future Civil War had been drawn and it was now only a slow march to the inevitable ctatstrophic bloodshed.

No one single thing can truly be christened as the single event that sparked the American Revolution, not even an extremely influential court case. But "Slave Nation" reminded you that, when considering the causes, and seeing past the inspiring rhetoric, we should all remember how important slavery was to the founding of the United States. The generation that Americans would come to refer to as our Founding Fathers were wrestling with an idea that seems today to be completely absurd, the notion that people could be property. But part of why that's such a ridiculous concept today is because of the very ideals those men introduced and the very language they used in becoming the founding fathers. And that's an inspiring thought. The Blumrosens reminded you that we should be just as free to mold the values of this nation to the realities of our day as the founders were free to shape a nation under the social influences of their own. Goodness can still come out of something evil. Inspiration can be found even in the darkest of moments. Perfection is not a prerequisite for greatness.

On to the next book!

P.S. As much as you love Thomas Jefferson, you also find him an epic disappointment. He said so many incredible things and illuminated countless wonderful ideas but he owned and sold human beings as property. Screw the morals of the day. He did it and he should have known better specifically because he was so enlightened! But the Blumrosens reminded you that Jefferson left the word 'property' out of the Declaration of Independence specifically because he knew that putting it in there could be used to defend slavery. If he had said "...Life, Liberty, and Personal Property" instead of "the Pursuit of Happiness", one of the founding documents of the nation would easily have been interpreted as sanctifying the evils of slavery for much longer than the 1860's. So, maybe you could cut old Thomas some slack from now on. Maybe re-read the last three sentences of this review occasionally.