26 May 2011


Character Connection 27

This is the last Thursday of May and therefore the last Character Connection post on notable mothers in children's literature. I started this short series with Beverly Cleary's Mrs. Huggins, whom I've loved ever since she told Henry he could bring home a dog he found on the street. Then I wrote about Mrs. Darling, who turns the sentimental tables on child readers of J.M. Barrie's classic novel. Most recently, I made my case for one of my favourite characters of all time, Meg Murry-O'Keefe, whose choice to be a mother of seven is misunderstood by even the writer who created her.

So whom do I have for you today? Read on and find out . . .

Mrs. Jonathan Frisby
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH
by Robert C. O'Brien

Mrs. Frisby, the head of a family of field mice, lived in an underground house in the vegetable garden of a farmer named Mr. Fitzgibbon . . .

Although she was a widow (her husband had died only the preceding summer), Mrs. Frisby was able, through luck and hard work, to keep her family--there were four children--happy and well fed. . . . The Frisbys made the best of what there was, and one way or another they kept from being hungry.

Then, one day at the very end of February, Mrs. Frisby's younger son, Timothy, fell sick . . .

Some very honoured conventions of children's literature are in this novel: the poor family in the humble home, the children who have lost at least one parent, the sibling who falls ill, the curious fact that there are four of them . . . Heck, you'll find the exact same tropes in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women and Gertrude Chandler Warner's Boxcar Children. (Yes, I know the March girls only "lose" their father to his temporary military service, but it still counts!)

The brave twist Robert C. O'Brien gives us is the equivalent of Alcott making Marmee the central character of her novel--or Warner writing a book about Dr. Moore and his unexpected avuncular adventures. For the real star of Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH is . . . Do you really need me to finish that sentence? =P

It is very rare for a mother to be a main character in a children's book. Adults are welcome, of course, but they're not usually parents--who are often villains when they do get major roles. And it's obvious why that would appeal to a child's psyche: no matter how loving his own parents are, it's fun to escape into a world where they don't get to call the shots. It's also a practical decision. Much of adult experience is simply beyond most children, who'd find it hard to relate to a grown up.

But O'Brien doesn't do anything by halves here! Not only does he insist that the mother be the heroine and that the children take the most minor of supporting roles, but he also gives her a wealth of that "adult experience": Mrs. Frisby has fallen in love, been married, given birth, been widowed, and experienced having to raise a family on her own. She is a cross-over trope from "Women's Fiction"! (LOL!)

Now I guess I should say something about Mrs. Frisby herself?

This brings us to our first official Ethical Animals connection! For of course it matters that Mrs. Frisby is a mouse.

This story wouldn't be half as beloved if she were human--even if she were like the sainted (but slightly overrated) Marmee. You see, the main thing about this murine mother is her down-to-earth practicality. There isn't a romantic bone in her body or a whismical hair on her head. She does get involved in a life-or-death adventure, but not for the thrill of it. She rides on the back of a raven [EDIT: I mean, of course, a crow], comes face to face with an owl (and lives to tell the tale!), discovers a hidden civilisation of rats, plots to get the better of a sneaky farm cat, and is even caught and trapped by a human boy . . . but none of it is for fun or excitement. She's just doing what she has to do to save her sick son; it's all like a call to the doctor and a drive to the hospital in the middle of a blizzard to her. And that is why she has to be a mouse: it's the essential dose of fantasy without which her tale would fall flat for her youngest readers.

Find me a child who doesn't feel an instant sympathy for small, cute and vulnerable animals . . . and I'll show you a future sociopath. =P

Under my Reading Diary entry on this novel is a short combox exchange that got me wondering whether this story could have been told using other animals. It took a few seconds before I reached my conclusion. (Heck no!) The rats have to be rats; the mice have to be mice; the cat has to be a cat; the raven has to be a raven; the owl has to be an owl; even the shrew has to be a shrew. [EDIT: I stand corrected about one thing: in this story, the raven "has to be" a crow! ROFLMAO!!!]The story might reflect universal human experience, but the animals are simply not interchangeable. And there is something very worthy of respect in stories whose elements are so non-negotiable.

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


Syrin said...

I agree with pretty much the entire post whole heartedly! I doubt I would have cared about Mrs. Frisby half as much if she had been human, and the story is built as such that all the animals act as they should for their respective type, and couldn't be switched. I really need to get my hands on a copy of this book and relive that part of my childhood. Simply watching the movie again is not the same.

Jenny said...

Gee, you always see things in books and characters that are just so deep. And I loved your future sociopath comment, funny and, oh so true.

Enbrethiliel said...


Syrin -- Thanks! I really love that the story has such integrity. Mrs. Frisby, et. al. are not merely human characters in "animal clothing"!

This was a great reread for me earlier this year, so I'm sure it will stand up for you, too, when you do get to it. =)

Jenny -- Thank you. =) That's a lovely compliment. I love finding these deep insights as much as you do reading them.

geeklady said...

Jeremy is a crow not a raven.

Shannon Young said...

I love this book so much! I have so much admiration for Mrs. Frisby, and as a child I never had trouble relating to her even though she was technically an adult. For some reason I connect Mrs. Frisby and Mrs. Weasley in my mind: both are so loving and motherly, yet they mean serious business when it comes to taking care of their families.

Enbrethiliel said...


Birdlady -- Thank you. The corrections have been made and I hope they meet your approval. =P

Shannon -- I see the connection, too--although Mrs. Weasley is, of course, much funnier. =)

Mrs. Weasley isn't a favourite of mine, though. =( I'd love to be "adopted" into her family the way Harry is (Who wouldn't???); but while I love her as a mum, I'm not really crazy for her as a character.

Which reminds me . . . I've always been curious about another mother in the Harry Potter world. I wish J.K. Rowling had given Mrs. Granger more "screen time."

IntrovertedJen said...

This is another children's book that I don't remember reading. I know I watched the movie though.

It would not have occurred to me that Mrs. Frisby had to be small and vulnerable in order for children to relate to her, but you're absolutely right--as always!

In response to the comments, it has always bothered me that Hermione's parents pretty much disappear as the book goes on. It's entirely possible that I've forgotten if there was an explanation, but they're present at Christmas and summer break in the first few books and then Hermione appears to be as much an orphan as Harry for all intents and purposes. She seems to spend all her time with the Weasleys and the Order!

Enbrethiliel said...


I'm glad you like the post, Jen. =)

That's an interesting observation about Hermione being as much as orphan as Harry in the later books--especially the last one, when she enchants her parents so that they think they never had her, for their own protection. Yes, they're boring Muggles who think braces are preferable to magic . . . but they're also parents liberal enough to let their daughter study in a school for wizards. I think they should get much more credit than they're given!