30 January 2011


Reading Diary: Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O'Brien

Surely rats would have developed reading and writing, judging by the way we took to it. But what about machines? What about cars and airplanes? Maybe not airplanes . . . Rats may not have that instinct.

In the same way, a rat civilisation would probably never have built skyscrapers, since rats prefer to live underground. But think of the endless subways-below-subways they would have had.

We thought and talked quite a bit about all this, and we realised that a rat civilisation, if one ever did grow up, would not necessarily turn out to be anything at all like human civilisation . . .

It was interesting to reread this book while still in "Full Dystopia Mode." (Hi, Kate!) Dystopian novels and films always feature civilisations which are either already dead or stretching out an inevitable death in some intellectually gruesome way. They make a morbid spectacle that I'm not quite sure is good for the soul, although that impression wasn't clear to me until I varied my diet with this decidedly different novel.

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH is one of those rare children's books that can take an epic theme and make it work wonderfully. It gives us another look at civilisation, with a special focus on what it takes to keep one healthy.

And yes, the keepers of this very healthy civilisation are rats. I hope that's not a problem for you, because they're wiser about theirs than we are about our own.

". . . we built ourselves the lives you see around you. Our colony thrived and grew to one hundred and fifteen. We taught our children to read and write. We had plenty to eat, running water, electricity, a fan to draw in fresh air, an elevator, a refrigerator. Deep underground, our home stayed warm in winter and cool in summer. It was a comfortable, almost luxurious existence.

"And yet all was not well. After the first burst of energy, the moving of the machines, the digging of tunnels and rooms--after that was done, a feeling of discontent settled upon us like some creeping disease."

In short, civilisation is about more than just comforts and conveniences. It's closer to the truth to say that civilisation starts to die when its members become too comfortable . . . and too unwilling to let their conveniences go.

And you know that Robert O'Brien is a real genius because not only did he figure that out, but he also decided not to hit his readers square in the face with it. This novel is not so much a chronicle of the rat colony's history as it is the story of a gentle, determined mouse widow who asks them to help her save her sick son.

To say that the overlap of their worlds turns out to be "mutually beneficial" is like saying Michaelangelo's frescoes made the Sistine Chapel "more colourful." As expected, the rats find an ingenious way to save Timothy Frisby's life; the surprise is what Mrs. Frisby is able to do for them. For while the rats can keep their colony healthy from within, they are more vulnerable to threats that come from without.

There is something very humbling in the idea that a complex civilisation's whole existence might, for one crucial moment, depend on something as small--and as random--as a mouse being in the right place at the right time. And if you ask your friendly neighbourhood historian, I'm sure he'll tell you that it's also very true.

Image Source: Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O'Brien


Mad Scientist said...

Such a classic! I loved this movie when I was young!

Mad Scientist

Enbrethiliel said...


I've never seen the movie, but the book is a real favourite. =) Thanks for visiting!

love the girls said...

In his book, Landscape with Dragon, Michael OBrien makes the observation of modern literature turning traditionally evil creatures into virtuous creatures.

While not dragons, rats are with good reason traditionally evil.

And so I wonder.

Enbrethiliel said...


I often get Michael O'Brien's literary criticism mentioned to me, but I haven't read any of it (except one article that I seriously can't remember), so I don't know if I properly address his thesis with my following point . . .

In one sense, Robert O'Brien has to go with rats, simply because they (or mice) are the most common laboratory animals and the plot involves them becoming smarter thanks to experimental injections they get in a lab. This story would have been impossible with any other animal--but I guess that's neither here nor there.

Yet I do see where Michael O'Brien is coming from. LTG, you might have heard about the "monster" trends in today's Young Adult fiction: vampires are the most popular, werewolves are catching up, and even "fallen angels" become romantic heroes. (Enough to make these rats seem benign.) Many modern readers automatically identify with rebels and the other outcasts of Heaven.

Avid Reader said...

This was one of my favorites when I was a kid. Such a great book!

Joy Tamsin David said...

I read this book aloud every year to my third graders.

For the record, the movie sucks. Nothing like the book. I had fond memories of it as a kid too, but when I watched it with my class one year I was soooo disappointed. The book is fantastic, the movie does it no justice.

Enbrethiliel said...


Avid Reader: It's one of my all-time favourites! =D

Joy: Thanks for letting me know about the movie. It's too bad that it's a sucky adaptation, but I wasn't planning to watch it, anyway. The novel is wonderful enough, you know? =)

Since this is one book I named in my "Top Ten Books I Wish I Read as a Kid", I say your third graders are pretty lucky!

Thanks for visiting and leaving a comment.

Dauvit Balfour said...

Just letting you know that I've got my W & Q post up, and I finally exposed my e-mail on my profile, so people can actually contact me with their prompts.

Enbrethiliel said...


Thanks, Dauvit! =D