Book review: Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, by Robert C. O’Brien

(Note: I experienced this book for the second time in audio form, and the first CD was so corrupted that I couldn’t listen to it at all. I almost returned it then to the library, but before I got around to it, I was sitting in traffic and decided why the hell not try the second CD, especially since it wasn’t my first time with the book.

The second CD not only worked fine, but it seemed like the story had hardly begun — Mrs. Frisby hadn’t even heard of the rats yet! I guess the first sixth of the book was a lot of introduction, especially of the cat named Dragon, from whom Mrs. Frisby saved the crow Jeremy, who would later help her in turn.)

This is a book I read in junior high, and since then I’ve carried glowy though hazy memories of being blown away by it as a fantasy book, of desperately wanting to read so many more books about the rats of NIMH (though I’m not sure I found the sequels), so I was intrigued to find out if that impression held true over a decade later.

Not quite, but I can glimpse what appealed to me so much about these innovative, immortal rats. That kind of creativity when you start from scratch is really fun to explore — the same appeal found in Swiss Family Robinson and Robinson Crusoe (all the many problematic parts in those books aside).

But they didn’t completely start from scratch, of course — at least, they didn’t build their own tools, though they did have to adapt them to different purposes — and that sparked the source of conflict for the rats. I certainly viewed this with a different perspective than I did as a preteen. Even then, Nicodemus struck me as awfully hung up on the notion of honor. I could understand him feeling affronted by his discovery of what people think of his species, but did he have to take it to those lengths? Did they have to destroy their tools and machines, even? And was it necessary to endanger the rats with a high chance of death or capture, just to ensure that the men from NIMH were thoroughly tricked?

As an adult, I detected a strong fishy smell of Republican ideology behind it all, that same “pull yourself up by your bootstraps, don’t accept handouts from the Authorities” mentality that’s so deceptive, because no one ever succeeds truly on their own, without any outside assistance. Who taught you to read, after all? And did you pay for that education yourself, in kindergarten? Who would front a five-year-old that loan, or who actually wants to go down that path? (If you’re raising your hand right now, don’t talk to me.)

And Jenner had an excellent retort, accompanied by one of the quotes that didn’t just grab my attention, but smacked me hard enough to leave a mark, as the best children’s books will do to you.

He compared their scavenging of grain and leeching of electricity from the farmer on whose land they lived, to the farmer himself taking milk from cows and eggs from chickens, and the only way he could was because he was smarter and more powerful than them. “People are our cows,” he declared, and damn that is a ballsy line for a kids’ book.

Nicodemus’ reply is that the farmer cares for the cows’ and chickens’ needs (which made me immediately think of animal conditions in the big corporate farms, which pretty well shuts down that argument), whereas they don’t do anything in return for the farmer.

Nicodemus was right that the rats had grown complacent without any challenges left for them (also by living a pretty unnatural life for rats), and they would have eventually been caught, especially as their colony grew. I’m not convinced that they had to leave the toy tinker’s tools behind — come on, farming is not a natural activity to rats, there was no guarantee of success (even humans, when unassisted by such entities as the Government, can easily face starvation through no fault of their own but simply the weather). They really should have kept any advantage they had.

So the title indicates a single character and a group, and their paths do cross as they help each other’s goals, but really their individual stories are so disparate that the fact that Mrs. Frisby is the POV character and whose story is introduced first and used to conclude the book, feels a little absurd. I mean, look at their plotlines:

  1. A mother and widow needs help with the annual migration of her family, including a sick child, before the farmer plows up on the field in which they live.
  2. A bunch of rats were caught and experimented on by a secret federal science program, which made them super-intelligent, super-strong, and apparently IMMORTAL. What will they do now?

No wonder the movie adaptation simply went with “The Secret of NIMH.” (I haven’t seen it, and the brief summary I’m looking at now looks disappointing — they really jumped on board with the cartoonish magical element. While I called the book “fantasy” earlier, it really isn’t — it’s pretty solid sci-fi, honestly, I was impressed with the level of realism and thoroughness in a lot of the details of the experiments performed on them, which included a control group. Especially how they were taught the alphabet and how to read. The only elements that are obviously ludicrous are the fact that all the animals can talk, and that the rodents are described specifically as walking on their hind legs often, rather than on all fours. I’m going to try to get Watership Down soon, to re-experience that one after several years as well, and study it in comparison as a more serious portrayal of talking animals who otherwise seem very realistic rabbits.)

So of course the rats’ story is the centerpiece of the book, even though the title begins with “Mrs. Frisby” and the plot is contained in her need to relocate her home and keep her sick child alive. I was intrigued by how this mother and widow is not only a titular character, but the one in whose POV the whole book is told — so I was extremely disappointed and a little outraged that we never learn her own name. She introduces herself as “Mrs. Jonathan Frisby,” even though her husband died the previous year. What the hell.

So although she had first place in the title, the real story was clearly the rats’, and I excused the unrealistic level of detail Nicodemus went into as he told her the story of their capture and time in NIMH, including how bloody long it must have actually taken to go through all of that (I amused myself by imagining, when he stopped telling his story, Mr. Ages informing them several days had passed and the farmer was starting up his tractor to plow the field now).

As someone who’s written a lot about places for holding people (even when the notion of “people” is disputed) against their will and what can be done to them there, I was riveted by the story of Dr. Schultz and his grad students and everything that happened to the rats. But the best quote about such captivity came later, when Mrs. Frisby was briefly held as a pet by the farmer’s son Billy. When Billy’s brother protested that the mouse looked scared, Billy scoffed: “It’s not scared, it’s just not used to the cage yet.”

WELL THEN. Thank you for that introduction to basic sociopathy/brainwashing yourself into a lack of compassion, Billy.

I really wonder about the author, Robert C. O’Brien, who published this book in 1971. Wikipedia tells me it’s inspired by the actual National Institute of Mental Health’s experiments on rats between the 1940s and 1960s (and I don’t need to read anything about that to already get a chill down my spine). I wonder how sympathetic he is to animals, and to human-animal relations in general, to have been inspired to write this.

To end, one particularly amusing moment of comedy. When Mrs. Frisby is held captive after dumping the rats’ sleeping powder into the cat food (they did this regularly whenever they wanted to conduct some big operation at night — though it turns out Mr. Frisby died in the attempt, as in he got eaten, so it certainly came with some risk), she hears the farmer’s family talking about the rats they know they live under the rosebushes. The farmer complains about the rats stealing their grain, followed by in the narrative: “On the floor, Dragon dozed on.”

What a perfect way to prompt readers to imagine the family’s reactions if only they knew the rats were also drugging their cat on a regular basis. And also, I’d add, that the recent spike in their electricity bill was because the rats threw a big party for Nicodemus’ birthday.

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