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

Mama Fisi
Mama Fisi's picture

I'm reviewing "Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH" because the original novel is much more like science fiction than the Don Bluth movie made from it was. In fact, it's really very good juvenile science fiction.

If you've ever endured a rodent infestation, it can be a little difficult to fully sympathise with the protagonists of "...NIMH," because they're all rats and mice. But these rodents are different. They live on a farm somewhere in Virginia, and, due to the fact that twenty of them had at one time been test subjects at the National Institute of Mental Health, where they received injections and training that raised their life spans and intelligence to the point that they could learn to read and make tools, they don't behave like the garden-variety vermin. These rats have constructed an elaborate subterranean colony complete with electric lighting, ventilation, carpeting, and a library.

They are morally troubled by the fact that they presently need to steal from the humans in order to maintain their level of civilization, and so they are formulating a plan to move to a secluded valley some distance away, and create their own farm. This is all going by unnoticed by the humans, of course, who are aware of the presence of the rats, but not of their intentions.

The story is in two parts, the first involving the titular character, a small field mouse named Mrs. Jonathan Frisby. She is a widow, with four children, the youngest of which comes down with pneumonia shortly before the family will have to abandon their winter quarters in a cinderblock half-buried in the vegetable garden, which is due to be plowed up. Mrs. Frisby turns to Mr. Ages, a white mouse with a knowledge of herbal medicine, to help her son, but despairs when Mr. Ages instructs that little Timmy not be moved for several weeks, lest he catch a chill and die.

After helping a silly young crow free itself from a tangle of string, and narrowly escaping a run-in with the farmer's cat, Mrs. Frisby is advised to seek the counsel of an ancient owl, wise in all things, who tells her to go talk to the rats who live under the rose bush by the barn.

This is when the science fiction part comes in. Mrs. Frisby is conducted into the presence of Nicodemus, the leader of the rats, who tells her the story of how they came to live in the astounding network of chambers deep under the rosebush, with its Christmas lights and its elevator. Mrs. Frisby listens, entranced, as she learns that her husband had not only known these rats, but had also been part of the same experiment, which accounted for his unusual intelligence. She also learns that he had been killed while helping the rats to put a sleeping powder into the cat's dish, so that they could go about their forays unmolested.

Nicodemus relates to her how the original group of rats had been ordinary animals living in a garbage dump. One night some humans ambushed and trapped the rats, and took them to a laboratory, where they were collared and placed in individual cages. Some were given injections of an experimental brain-enhancing serum, while others were in a control group.

The researchers were kind to the rats, although the experiments involved running mazes with electric shocks to train them. Eventually the rats receiving the serum discovered that they could actually read, and they used this new skill to figure out how to open the doors of their cages and escape through the air ducts. Some of the rats, and almost all of the mice, get swept away when the fans kick on; of the mice, only Jonathan and Mr. Ages survive. They ask to stay with the rats.

Once free, they had to decide what they were going to do, as they were no longer really rats--they were an evolved species. They don't wish to be recaptured, but they also can't imagine going back to their old life in the dump--the very thought actually repulses them.

They find an uninhabited house, and camp there for the winter, taking great pains to keep the place tidy so that the caretaker never notices their presence. There is food in the pantry and books in the library, and they use their time to increase their understanding of the world and how it works.

After leaving the estate in the spring, they come upon an abandoned truck belonging to a toymaker. The old man himself had died of a heart attack while trying to dig the wheels of the truck out of the mud. The rats cover up the body, then explore the truck's contents, taking a number of useful tools and small motors. With these, they can begin to construct their new city, under the rosebush.

The only dissent in the group came from a rat named Jenner, who did not think it would be a good idea to move the colony away from the farm and start from scratch. When he could not persuade the majority of the rats to stay, he took several followers and left the colony, only to apparently get electrocuted trying to steal a generator from the local hardware store. This event precipitates the end of the story.

The rats decide to help Mrs. Frisby in memory of her late husband, and to do this they will need to make block and tackle to move the cinderblock into the shelter of a large stone in the field. The plow will pass around the stone, and the mouse house should be safe in its lee.

They must move fast, though, for while Mrs. Frisby was trying to put the sleeping powder into the cat's dish--as only a mouse could fit through the hole under the cabinet in the farmhouse kitchen--she overhears the humans talking about the peculiar happenings at the hardware store, and how men from the government would be coming out to investigate, and to try to gas all the rats living on the farm. Farmer Fitzgibbons thinks that the government men must believe the rats have rabies, and don't wish to alarm the public, but Mrs. Firsby and Nicodemus guess the truth--the men are from NIMH and want to destroy the intelligent rats before word gets out about them.

The rats succeed in moving the Frisby home, and then return to prepare their own colony. They clear out all of their luxuries and equipment, and send the greater portion of the populace to the new location in the valley, while ten rats volunteer to remain behind in order to make it look like the men had successfully dug up the rat hole.

Farmer Fitzgibbons pushes aside the old rose bush with his tractor, and the agents from NIMH pump the gas into the tunnels. Eight rats stagger out of the chamber, but two never emerge, succumbing to the fumes.

Afterwards, Mrs. Frisby is able to move her family to their summer quarters down by the stream, and promises them that she will think about taking them to visit the rats in Thorn Valley.

The book is very well written, and the science seems plausible, even if a lot of the events seem contrived. The humans are not depicted as evil or monsters, but only as human beings going about their usual business, unaware of the intelligent rodents in their midst. This aspect was refreshing, for in too many stories, humans are painted as sadistic bad guys. Farmer Fitzgibbons' plow was a threat to Mrs. Frisby's home only because the cinderblock happened to be buried in his garden, not because he really wanted to harm her. When the farmer's younger son caught Mrs. Frisby and put her into a birdcage to keep as a pet, the older boy sympathised with her and asked his brother to let her go free. In fact, even the cat was only being a normal cat.

There are a few points where "it loses reality" for me. When Mrs. Frisby goes with the young crow to consult the owl, the owl is benign toward her. I felt like the whole scene with the owl could have been eliminated, since Mr. Ages knew about the rats, and could have told her to go consult them.

In fact, Mr. Ages could have suggested the Frisby family stay with him until Timmy was well enough to travel, or later on, that the rats offer to let the Frisby family stay in their complex. The urgency to move the cinderblock seemed a bit unneccessary given these two options, which were never brought up.

Also, the part where the rats need to use a spool of thread in order to find their way out of the ventilation ducts at NIMH is pretty ridiculous. All homages to Theseus and the Minotaur aside, rats and mice can get along perfectly well in the dark. I suppose the author did not wish to mention the way rodents leave scent trails, considering this was a story for young children.

It seems obvious that Mr. O'Brien intended to write a sequel, because he sets up several open-ended threads. Unfortunately, he died shortly after the book was published. Mr. O'Brien's real name was Robert Leslie Conley; he adopted a pen name because he was a journalist for the National Geographic, and didn't want his authorship of children's stories to conflict with his reputation as a serious journalist.

The movie, "The Secret of NIHM," casts the story in a far more magical vein, with Nicodemus as a wizard, and turns Jenner from a mere dissenter into an evil traitor who sabotages the moving of the cinderblock and kills Nicodemus.

This was both unnecessary and unfortunate, because the Newberry Medal-winning novel is perfectly fine and interesting on its own, without being embelleshed or perverted by a lot of hocus-pocus.

So I would recommend reading the book, but staying away from the film.

Considering what's currently being done in the field of neurobiology and the science of how we learn, the Rats of NIMH may not be merely fictional for much longer.