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Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH Hardcover – March 1, 1971
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There's something very strange about the rats living under the rosebush at the Fitzgibbon farm. But Mrs. Frisby, a widowed mouse with a sick child, is in dire straits and must turn to these exceptional creatures for assistance. Soon she finds herself flying on the back of a crow, slipping sleeping powder into a ferocious cat's dinner dish, and helping 108 brilliant, laboratory-enhanced rats escape to a utopian civilization of their own design, no longer to live "on the edge of somebody else's, like fleas on a dog's back."
This unusual novel, winner of the Newbery Medal (among a host of other accolades) snags the reader on page one and reels in steadily all the way through to the exhilarating conclusion. Robert O'Brien has created a small but complete world in which a mother's concern for her son overpowers her fear of all her natural enemies and allows her to make some extraordinary discoveries along the way. O'Brien's incredible tale, along with Zena Bernstein's appealing ink drawings, ensures that readers will never again look at alley rats and field mice in the same way. (Ages 9 to 12) --Emilie Coulter
About the Author
Robert C. O’Brien was born in Brooklyn, New York. He attended Williams College and graduated from the University of Rochester. He was a writer and editor for Newsweek, National Geographic, and other publications. He lived in New York City and then in Washington, DC, with his wife and four children. Z for Zachariah—which is now a major motion picture starring Margot Robbie, Chris Pine, and Chiwetel Ejiofor—was completed by his wife and daughter, with the help of his notes, after his death in 1973. He is also the author of Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH and The Silver Crown.
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I want to say ahead of time that I completely disagree with all the other reviews I've read about why this is a great book. It is a truly fine book, but not, in my opinion, for the reasons so frequently listed. If you are looking for escapist animal adventure and fantasy, go elsewhere. If you want an intense study of supremacist thinking, this is your book.
I have my 11 year olds read the book and come back with a summary, we chat, and basically all my kids had the same reaction as most kids: good story, great read, action, adventure, brave mouse, inventive heroic rats, etc.
I then start to ask questions. "How long did it take for the rats to move Timothy's house?" 1/2 an hour. "Was it hard for them?" No. "Why was Timothy sick?" General sickliness and dampness in the old location. "Who was Timothy's father?" Jonathan, the NIMH mouse. "Friend of the rats?" Of course. "Then why didn't they take care of Jonathan's family after he died?" Silence. "Let's retrack... How did Jonathan die?" Helping the rats. "Did they make sure at least that his widow and children had a warm, secure place to live?" No. "Did they check in on her from time to time?" No. "Did they make sure she had enough to feed her children?" No. "Did they take on the education of her children knowing she was unable to?" No. "Did they ever offer anything at any time?" No. "So a friend dies helping you and though you have abundant resources and it would not be inconvenient in the least, you do absolutely nothing?" Silence. "Let's look more closely at these rats..."
And we begin to read the book together and read how they respond, how they never offer to help anyone no matter how simple it would be or how important it would be for the other animal, how they hoard their resources and their knowledge, how their 'friendships' are based on how useful or beneficial the other animal is to them, how they see nothing wrong with any of that. How cold their feelings are towards others (at one point they watch mice, being blown away, trying desperately to grip smooth metal with their tiny nails, tumbling by to their deaths, "like leaves" and only one rat helps one mouse, a favor the mouse repays over and over and over again when in fact it was very little effort or danger for the rat to help him).
We begin to talk about their morality. Much is made by the rats that they don't want to live by stealing anymore. Rats are scavengers, not thieves. When these rats are first picked up, they were living off the refuse of the market, they are not thieves. It is not until after they have been genetically altered that they actually refuse to eat garbage and break into grocery stores and begin actually stealing. They do a lot of hand-wringing about how can they live without being thieves. The same way all the other animals on the farm do it: by foraging! But that is never an option to them. No, they must create their own farming community. But how... Oh, by STEALING everything they need to do it. And not once is it even considered that they could do much good around the farmer's house by repairing his equipment or otherwise blessing this family that they are so busy stealing from. What a different book it would be if the farmer were to be overheard saying to his wife, "I thought I would have to pay $2000 to get the tractor fixed, but I went out there this morning and it turned over and ran like it was brand new. I can't explain it. More than makes up for the $200 in seed that we lost last year." But they never, not once, offer to do anything for anyone whom they are stealing from, regardless of how much they are stealing or how easy it would be to do.
Their moral compass is also shown to be in a spiral when they come across a dead old man in a forest who has left a truck full of tools that are the perfect size for rats (he repaired toys). Who does the truck belong to? The heirs, says the leader. But we don't know who they are or how to get in touch with them, say the rats. Okay, then I guess it's ours if we want it, replies the leader. And they proceed to strip the truck. I then ask my 11 year old, "If you were to come across something that belonged to someone else, not a small thing that could be seen as lost or discarded but something big (like a vehicle full of equipment!) but you had no way to get in touch with who owned it, what would you do?" "Leave it alone." "Right. Would you assume that that gave you the right to take anything you wanted?" "No!" Right...
And the kids start to think, start to notice, start to reread sections. "Mom! Like here!" and "I never noticed this, but look!" And what they eventually start to see is that nowhere in the novel does the idea of helpful, inventive, heroic rats who aid a poor little mommy mouse even exist! The summary on the back of the book is a sham. The glowing reviews are shams. These rats are supremacists.
And the older the kids get the more they begin to realize that these are fascists. Only we matter, and we matter because we are the strongest, the most intellectually superior, and therefore all of our actions are justified. We are not responsible for weaker neighbors. If they can not survive, that is no concern of ours. We guard what is ours jealously. You are only welcome if you serve a purpose, and only as long as you serve that purpose. We owe you nothing. And you must take all the risk (that was a moment of revelation to one of my kids -- the rats used the mice to take all the risk!) before we will deign to even notice you. We will create a new society, one without any weakness, one without difference, one without you, only us.
Even at the end of the book, when the rats and the brave mouse mommy (she is that!) have been through the roughest of rough times together, do they invite her to join them? Let her family know where they are going? Say they'll come back and visit? No. They are off to build their utopia.
There is only one rat who shows some compassion, some genuine sense of friendship, and even he does some incredibly cold and calculated things.
So I give this book 5 stars and I challenge anyone to reread this after reading this and not see something new, something very quiet, but very loud. Ah, subtext...
We have to read books better. It is my job as a homeschooling mom to teach my kids how to do that. This is an absolutely wonderful book for that. Thank you, Robert O'Brien.
P.S. If you really want to see the truth of it, read the sequel, Racso and the Rats of NIMH written by his daughter. She completely ignores the original undertones and just goes with the surface stuff and writes her book as though these rats were always friendly and helpful and compassionate. The rats are almost unrecognizable...
The basic synopsis of the book is that Mrs. Frisby, a widow, must find a way to keep her children (specifically, her youngest son who is ill) safe from the plows that are going to be coming through the field. She can't move to a new home due to her youngest child's illness so she seeks out help. This brings her to the rats of NIMH, and she gets to learn their story as well. You essentially get a story within a story from this. You learn about NIMH and how the rats came to be how they are, and you also get the story about how they are going to help Mrs. Frisby with her problem.
As a child, some of the implications and messages from the book went over my head, but as an adult the messages are very clear and thoughtful. That was actually one of the best parts of re-reading this as an adult, truly understanding the moral implications of the story. It's a magical story that you will likely power through in a couple days, but it is well worth it for kids and adults alike!
"Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH" has a few plot holes that marred my enjoyment of the book, but it's still a thoughtful and interesting read, and has something valuable to say about the nature of intelligence and the responsibilities that come with it.
The titular Mrs. Frisby is a field mouse, a widow with four children who lives in a cinderblock in a farmer's garden. When her son Timothy falls ill with pneumonia, her plans to move her family to a new home for the summer are thwarted... but the family can't stay where they are, for very soon the farmer will be plowing the field and will destroy their home in the process. In desperation Mrs. Frisby goes to the Great Owl of the forest, who tells her that the secret to saving her son lies in the rat colony in the rosebush. There, she learns the secret history of said rats -- intelligent creatures who escaped from a laboratory and have the ability to read, use tools, and even form their own society -- and her late husband's link to them. And when she overhears a terrible plot to destroy the colony, she and her newfound allies must race against time to save both her family and the rats of NIMN from sure destruction...
Fair warning to those reading this book after watching "The Secret of NIMH" -- Don Bluth and company drastically changed several elements of the plot. The film adds fantasy elements, turns rat leader Nicodemus into a wizard for some reason, expands the roles of characters like Jeremy and Jenner, and adds several character deaths for drama and darkness. The book is actually quite a bit lighter and softer, and while I know Bluth isn't shy about avoiding death and darkness in his films, it makes me wonder why he twisted the story out of true like he did.
The book itself is still a good read, however. One can't help but sympathize with Mrs. Frisby, an ordinary mouse who's simply seeking to help her family but is soon reluctantly swept into the role of a hero. Her children and the majority of the rat characters (besides Nicodemus, Justin, Isabella, and Brutus) are flatly characterized, but the book makes up for it with other characters, such as the wise but benevolent owl, the bumbling but well-meaning Jeremy, and the feisty and overprotective shrew who helps Mrs. Frisby's family out.
The book also tries to impart a message to its readers -- that great intelligence comes with responsibility, and that it's important to use the gifts we have been given wisely. While important for the rats to preserve their society, it's also one we as humans would do well to keep in mind. And the book shows that dire consequences can be brought about, both on ourselves and on others, if we use our skills for the wrong reasons.
The biggest plot hole I've found in this book is that the rats are supposedly much more intelligent than other creatures, yet most of the animals we do see (especially Mrs. Frisby's family) seem just as intelligent. Yes, they may not read or use tools, but they still have a society of their own and seem perfectly capable of using their wits. Also, it might be a bit jarring for some readers to read about non-anthropomorphic animals sticking to human conventions such as marriage. It always bothers me when a writer doesn't write animals as animals, but rather as humans in fur, feathers, or scales. Just my personal preference, however.
Quite a bit different from the movie, but this book is still a good read for older children, probably ages 7-12. Older kids might be disappointed in the lack of much action, but they can still take away something valuable from this book. And it's also worth a read if you're a fan of "Secret of NIMH," and it's interesting to see the differences between the two.