Monday, February 20, 2017

Monday Musings: O'Brien Read/Watch: Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH

I'm starting off the read/watch marathon with the book that started me on this kick and inspired the film(s) that alerted me to O'Brien's work: Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.

Before I get into my thoughts on the book itself, I want to take a minute to talk about my copy of the book, pictured below.

I'd actually like to get a better copy, maybe a hardback. This one's a former library copy (hooray book sales!) that's in decent shape, although the front cover is being held on by library-grade book tape. More than that, it has the wrong title because it's a movie tie-in for the Don Bluth film (which I'll take a look at next week if all goes well). It does at least feature the original title in parentheses, but it doesn't have any of the requisite "8 pages of stills from the movie!" inserts. I'll try to avoid any more mentions of the film and its changes to the story in this post because that's what the movie post is for. But let's take a moment to talk about the fact that this is one of the worst shots they could have picked for the cover of this book. Nicodemus looks like he's about to eat Mrs. Frisby's (sorry, Mrs. Brisby's since this is a movie cover) soul or something.

Moving on.

I was surprised at how quickly I sped through this book this time. As I mentioned in my introductory post for this series, I had to renew the book at the library when I first read it, an almost unheard of occurrence for me, especially back then. This time, I read the book in a couple of days. Even discounting the fact I was laid up in bed with not much else to do, that's a pretty big discrepancy. Assuming there isn't any sneaky abridging going on here (Scholastic has fooled me before), this book is a quick read.

The book opens with the recently widowed Mrs. Frisby searching for food to get her family through the last of the winter months. She returns from a successful foraging trip only to discover that her youngest son, Timothy, is sick -- dangerously so. She leaves to seek the help of an older mouse who lives across the farm, Mr. Ages. Mr. Ages gives her some medicine for Timothy, but the medicine is only the beginning of the treatment, because Timothy can't be out in the cold and damp for several weeks at least. This wouldn't be a problem if spring weren't coming a bit sooner than expected, and with spring comes the farmer's plow -- right through the Frisby home.

Thus begins Mrs. Frisby's journey to find a way to move her family to safety without putting Timothy at undue risk.

The rest of the plot is actually very simple, and follows some patterns from the hero's journey -- the wise old man (or owl, in this case), the animal in trouble who provides more help later on, the riddle/password needed at the gate, etc. Mrs. Frisby goes to the owl, who sends her to the rats, who have the solution, who then enact that solution. The only real roadblock to her quest after meeting the owl is helping the rats drug the farmer's cat, Dragon. This she accomplishes with the minor setback of being put in a birdcage, but one of the rats arrives later that night to rescue her, so it's not so bad.

A large chunk of the book (almost 1/3 of the chapters, and probably close to 1/3 of the actual pages) is devoted to Nicodemus relating the history of the rats, NIMH, and Mrs. Frisby's late husband Jonathan. (You can read about some of the actual research that inspired Nicodemus' story here.) This is the section of the book I remembered most vividly from my elementary school reading. Some of the images of the tests and training the rats underwent stayed so clearly in my mind that, in retrospect, I thought these passages must have been highly detailed. It turns out, they were more suggestive than detailed. The scenes I remembered passed so quickly I might have missed them if I hadn't been waiting for them so eagerly. I guess that's the power of O'Brien's prose. He suggests as much as he reveals.

While the NIMH sequence in the middle of the book remained strongest in my mind between readings, I did find sentences and images that seemed extremely familiar as I read through the book this time. That happens to me a lot when I come back to a book, particularly one I've not read more than twice. I hadn't expected it with this book, however, so it was a nice treat.

One thing that did bother me about the book, even before I began rereading it, was this: throughout the book, this capable, clever mouse mother is never once given a first name. She is only and always Mrs. Frisby. Her identity is bound up in her late husband's. While this works thematically (it is only for Jonathan's sake that the owl and the rats help her, and it is Jonathan's nature and identity that cause his death and much of the mystery in the family's life), it is bothersome because she's the only named character (apart from Mr. Ages and the farmers) to NOT have a first name. She's the main character and we can't even think of her as more than Mrs. Jonathan Frisby. It just seems odd, given how strong she is (even in her weakness).

On a similar note, it felt odd to see that (despite the presence of at least one female rat in the NIMH group*), the only named female character in the rat colony is Isabella, a youth whose main purpose in the plot is to pine over Justin. I don't know if these two observations are anything like as problematic as they seemed to me as I was reading them, but I'd like to see the new film address them somehow.

While the ending feels somewhat abrupt -- and a little too like the tones of Bambi and The Fox and the Hound (the books, not the Disney films) -- I do like that it ends with hope for the future, and with Martin wanting to go visit Thorn Valley (especially given the way he's sidelined and then villainized in the "sequel" to the Don Bluth film). But there's sadness in the ending, too. I'd forgotten the heavy implication that Justin dies. I'm hoping one of the sequels O'Brien's daughter wrote will reveal it wasn't Justin, but it's a slim hope.

Have you read Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH? What did you think of it? Let me know in the comments.

*I'm assuming she was in the group with Nicodemus, Justin, and the rest. It's possible she was in one of the other groups that did not experience the increased knowledge and lifespan of the titular rats.


  1. I haven't read it, that I remember, and my memory of the movie is almost nonexistent. But it seems to be very popular so I should probably add it to my TBR list.

    1. It is definitely worth the read! Let me know what you think of it whenever you get around to it.


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