Retro Review: Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien by Emily Meixner
At some point last year, a colleague popped by my office and handed me a large plastic bag of children’s books his teenage daughter had decided she no longer needed. Knowing that I often take these discarded books and distribute them among my English education students who are beginning to build their classroom libraries, he was happy to find them a good home with readers who would love them as much as his daughter had. As I rifled through the bag, there near the bottom, I glimpsed a yellowing copy of Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien. “Oooh!” I thought to myself. “I loved this book! Maybe my son would enjoy it, too.”
For several months thereafter, I unsuccessfully suggested it as a bedtime read-aloud to my 8-year old. “Really,” I promised, persistent. “This is a good book. I think you’ll like it.” Finally, he conceded to give it a try – more, I’m sure, to stop my relentless recommendations than because he was truly interested. As it turned out, we both loved the book, but I hadn’t read it before. Despite my claims of childhood adoration, nothing about Mrs. Frisby’s courageous efforts to convince a community of genetically enhanced rats to help her save her sick son was familiar to me. So each night, as we curled up to read another chapter (or two), we experienced this wonderful story together from our own unique perspectives.
I immediately fell in love with the names of O’Brien’s characters: Jeremy (the crow), Timothy (a mouse and Mrs. Frisby’s ailing son), Nicodemus (the leader of the rats), Justin (the captain of the guard), and Dragon (the ever-present, often deadly cat). Playful, yet substantive, these were names with gravitas that were also fun to say. I also appreciated O’Brien’s ability to create tension: the looming threat of the plow set to destroy Mrs. Frisby’s home, the danger involved in the rats’ escape from NIMH and Dr. Schultz’s laboratory, the anxiety when Mrs. Frisby, herself, is unexpectedly caught and caged, and the knowledge that the rats could be recaptured or killed before their final escape from Mr. Fitzgibbon’s farm. All of these problems kept us engrossed night after night because each problem was immediate and real. Each problem was complicated, and each solution required both teamwork and personal sacrifice. As a result, the outcomes – at best, success and survival, at worst, displacement and/or death – were consequential.
I was also unexpectedly moved by Mrs. Frisby’s situation: that of a mother doing everything in her power to save her child from certain death. Having not read the book previously, I didn’t anticipate how affected I’d be by Timothy’s deteriorating health and I kept wanting to cheat, to skip ahead when my son wasn’t looking to reassure myself that Timothy would survive. I didn’t, but I really, really wanted to.
When I asked my son why he liked the book, he thought for a second and then enumerated three reasons.
- The owl’s advice to Mrs. Frisby that she ask the rats for their help. This is a tense moment early in the book, one of the very first in which Mrs. Frisby acts despite being very afraid. Can she find the owl? How will she climb up the tree to meet him? Will the owl eat her before she has a chance to explain her situation? When the Owl listens and ultimately sends Mrs. Frisby to the rats for assistance, my son was both relieved and excited. Now she had a plan.
- The rat’s “house” and “how the author made it sound real.” He, like Mrs. Frisby, was struck by the rats’ ability and ingenuity, and passages like the one which O’Brien describes the corridor through which Mrs. Frisby enters the rats’ compound—Its ceiling and walls were a smoothly curved arch, its floor hard and flat, with a soft layer of carpet down the middle. The light came from the walls, where every foot or so on both sides a tiny light bulb had been recessed and the hold in which it stood, like a small window, had been covered with a square of colored glass—blue, green or yellow (76) – captured his imagination.
- All of the animal characters in the book. The crow, the mice, the ever-present cat, the rats. When I asked him to explain why this was important, he thought for a moment and said, “If we were all different animals, it [the book] might tell us what we’d be like.” I can only hope we would be as kind and generous with one another.
Does Timothy live? Are the rats discovered? I won’t say. What I will assert is that Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH is a beautifully crafted story for children (of all ages). Its themes of courage, adventure, and friendship spoke to me and to my son. We think you will enjoy it, too.
Emily Meixner is an Associate Professor of English at The College of New Jersey in Ewing, NJ, where she teaches courses on secondary ELA pedagogy and young adult literature. She is currently reading Jean Craighead George’s My Side of the Mountain because her son – who is also persistent – told her she should. You can follow her and hear more about what’s she’s reading and teaching on Twitter @EsMteach.