All Creatures Great and Small is a book made up of a series of episodes that occur in the first two years of the veterinary practice of the protagonist, James Herriot. The plot is told through short anecdotes about treating animals, meeting farmers and other clients, and participating in the culture of the Dales. The overall plot follows the growth of Herriot’s career as a vet.
Herriot is hired as the assistant to the vet Siegfried Farnon. Siegfried has his veterinary practice in the town of Darrowby, in the Yorkshire Dales in England. Siegfried, Herriot, and Siegfried’s brother Tristan all live and work out of Skeldale House. The house is cared for by Mrs. Hall, who fixes them all their meals. Later, the character of Miss Harbottle also becomes a fixture in the house during the day, as the secretary for the veterinary practice, who is often at odds with Siegfried’s disorganized ways.
The plot of the novel is woven through Herriot’s various stories about the people and animals he meets in the Yorkshire Dales. He has varied experiences, often having to rush to farms in the middle of the night to tend to his patients. Gradually, the Dales farmers warm up to Herriot, and he appreciates them for their hospitality and resilience to the harshness of life in the Dales. Many of the farmers are accustomed to living with very few resources, and in very harsh conditions; the book is set during the Great Depression, when people often had to survive on very little. Herriot also encounters many wealthier clients, which provides a sharp contrast to the poverty-stricken farms he sees. Herriot tells the stories using humor, as he observes the laid-back pace of country life, the folk remedies the farmers believe in, and the diverse people he encounters.
While Herriot is struck by the beauty of the Dales, he also has a hard time adapting to the harsh weather in the winter. However, he does often take time to appreciate just how beautiful the snow is, even while his feet are freezing. The spring and summer in the Dales help to warm Herriot to the beauty of the countryside.
The book also contains various subplots that appear throughout the narrative. One subplot details the conflicts between Siegfried Farnon and Tristan Farnon due to their differences in temperament and personality. Herriot also enjoys moments of friendship with Tristan Farnon, who plays tricks on Herriot, gives him romantic advice, and brings him to village dances. In another subplot, Herriot tells humorous stories of an eccentric wealthy woman, Mrs. Pumphrey, and her beloved dog, Tricki Woo. As Tricki’s designated “Uncle,” Herriot receives expensive gifts from the dog and attends an elegant party on Tricki’s behalf, all of which he very much enjoys.
The last part of the novel follows Herriot’s pursuit of Helen Alderson. Helen is the daughter of a local farmer, and Herriot meets her while he is treating one of the farm animals. Later, he joins the music society to get closer to Helen, and eventually asks her on a date. Their first date, to a fancy hotel for dinner, does not go as planned, and Herriot, disappointed, does not ask her out again. However, when Helen brings in her dog for treatment and specifically requests Herriot as the vet, Herriot decides to ask her out again. Their second date, to the movie theater, also does not go as planned, but Helen expresses interest in going on another date. Soon, Herriot is seeing her regularly, and eventually asks her to marry him. Their honeymoon falls in the same period of time as tuberculosis testing, but they happily they spend it driving the countryside and going to the farms to test the local cows. At the end of the novel, Siegfried makes Herriot a partner in the veterinary practice, thus confirming Herriot’s professional progress throughout the course of the novel.