Book Review: ‘The Shepherd’s’ Life by James Rebanks

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James Rebanks dropped out of school at the age of fifteen, disgusted with teachers who wanted him to “make something of himself.” Totally uninterested in meaningless school lectures, he looks forward to working full time as a farmer, raising sheep alongside his father and his grandfather. He is proud to be part of an ongoing family, honest working folk who have lived on the hills and lakes of northwestern England since the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

Shepherding hundreds of sheep is more than just leading them along a country lane. There are tups (rams) to buy and mate with the ewes, with all the attention to future performance that a race horse would be given. Swaledales and Herdwicks are the two breeds of sheep best suited for the high hill country; Sheep must be sheared, lambs birthed, diseases prevented. Hundreds of sheep must be moved to the high country grass in summer so that valley fields can produce enough hay for winter. Rock walls to be built and repaired, ears to taggbe ed for identity. Lost sheep to be searched for, flocks to be sheltered during winter blizzards and springtime rains. Every day, rain or shine. This was the life James had chosen, and loved.

But something was lacking in his life. Drinking, fighting, hanging out with friends wasn’t enough to look forward to. Then he met Helen, his sister’s friend. He was 21, she was 18. “She had worked hard at school, read books, and knew all the stuff that I didn’t. She believed I could do anything I set my mind to. That made everything possible.”

One of the pubs in town had shelves lined with books that no one ever read. Occasionally, James would borrow one, quietly with the landlord’s permission. It wasn’t cool to be into books.

A Korean War vet noticed James was carrying a book one night, and said that young guys knew nothing about war; he challenged the pub crowd to even name the plane on the book cover. The crowd looked blank. “Messerschmitt one-oh-nine,” James said. He gradually discovered he knew more about things than his pub-mates. One of them told him “What are you doing here … with us idiots? You should go to university and do something smart …”

“Sometimes you can’t go back when people know something new about you,” James discovered.

“My two younger sisters turned out far smarter than me: straight-A students. Sometimes I’d help the elder one with her homework. One night she challenged me to do her history homework. I think she had a hot date or something, so she left me to it. A few days later, she was seriously pissed off because the essay came back with a rave review from her teacher. I laughed. She told me that was it, no more goes at her schoolwork. From then on, I knew I could do A-levels if I wanted, or needed to.

“I went to the local adult education center when I was twenty-one, and got straight A’s. It was easy if you had read the books I had. The instructor asked me all sorts of questions, ending with had I thought about applying for Oxford or Cambridge? It seemed ridiculous that I might get in. But they were apparently looking for people from ‘different backgrounds’, which secured me an interview. I needn’t have worried. It was easy if you weren’t really bothered. So, much to the amusement of the other professors, I got into a row with one of them. I like arguing. I’m good at it. When he went too far and said something a bit silly, I teased him and said he was losing his grip. As I left when my time was up, I smiled at them as if to say, “F-you. I could do this all day.”

“They all smiled back. I knew I was in.”

But he went back to full time farm work after University. His book mentions study trips to foreign lands, but doesn’t say how he found time for them. He divides a year into its four seasons by detailing the work load each season demands, and most of the book is about sheep, and quite interesting. He tells about a blizzard when he trudged through a chest-high snowdrift, to break trail for his best sheep dog, leading a band of sheep to safety at lower altitude.

He and Helen married, and have three young children, all aiming toward working the farm as they grow older. He describes a springtime afternoon in lambing season, guiding his six-year-old daughter, Bea while she manages a difficult delivery of a lamb. She is exhausted at the end, but tells him, “We have to go for breakfast, Dad, and tell Molly I lambed one. And its bigger than the one she lambed.”

This is a book to be read to the very end, including the acknowledgments. He ends his story with his father’s code of ethics: “Work that needs doing should be done.”

And he adds, “This is my life. I want for no other.”

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