Joseph's Reviews > Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O'Brien
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Sep 29, 12

bookshelves: fiction, book-club
Read from September 27 to 29, 2012 — I own a copy, read count: 1

Maybe I just shouldn't be reading children's literature.

I guess I was bothered by the inconsistencies in tone. On the one hand, this is kind of a dark book, dealing fairly honestly (although I question Schultz's experimental model) with the dark side of animal experimentation. But on the other hand, it's a cute, Disney-fied story of animals so anthropomorphized that they're basically just tiny humans who occasionally make some token reference to their animal bodies. The book demonizes (albeit very mildly) science, while romanticizing a more agrarian lifestyle, yet at the same time, it's due to science that the rats are capable of pursuing their plan of becoming farmers. Even more strange is that the initial, yet secondary, villain of the piece is a farmer. He causes the book's central peril, but the book's heroes look to pursue the same path, potentially endangering other creatures whose homes stand in the way of the rat's plow.

I guess it's fine if you just take it as a cute story for kids, but when you try to figure out what it's saying, the whole thing kind of falls apart.
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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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message 1: by Amy (new) - rated it 5 stars

Amy On the contrary -- I think the inconsistencies are deliberate. O'Brien refuses to create a simplistic moral universe of good guys and bad guys, right choices and wrong choices. Unlike in the film, Jenner and his choice are not vilified. The humans, insofar as we can perceive them through the animals' perspective, aren't truly cruel -- they just aren't mindful of the lives being lived in the smaller world. (It isn't just cute Disneyfied anthropomorphization -- O'Brien would really like for people to think about how these creatures live in real, everyday life.) Meanwhile, the rats are struggling to figure out how to live in a world that wasn't meant to be -- it just is. No one has told them how intelligent rats ought to live and behave and we as readers will never know if the answers they come up with are satisfactory. I don't disagree that the book ultimately condemns science in favor of romanticized agrarianism, and that's not a value I personally share with it. But even as a child, I found that the book encouraged me to consider new perspectives while refusing simplistic answers. As an adult reader, far from finding that it falls apart under scrutiny, I find it holds up to sophisticated questioning even better than I remembered it.


Joseph That's a fair point about not having a simplistic moral universe, although I haven't seen the movie, so I can't really comment on that. I still think O'Brien comes down squarely opposed to science; no one in the book is cruel or evil, but Jenner and Schultz are pretty clearly in the wrong, while the rats' Plan is seen as an absolute good. I don't feel like he's trying to complicate that viewpoint, but it's just a feeling and I could certainly be wrong.

As for the animals behaving like humans, you're certainly right about O'Brien trying to humanize his characters (and it's not like it's any different from any other children's author who writes about animals), but I was weirdly distracted by it. I don't know if I can explain it, but I guess I felt they were doing human things, instead of doing animal things in a human fashion. That probably doesn't make any sense.

Truthfully, the only thing about my review that's really a hundred percent worth reading is the first sentence!


message 3: by Amy (new) - rated it 5 stars

Amy Well, I don't know about that, but I'd agree you probably shouldn't bother with Robert C. O'Brien! I don't remember "Silver Crown" very well, but his anti-science perspective is pretty clear in "Z for Zachariah," too, where the scientist figure -- who is selfish, athiestic, and in the end downright homicidal -- is set in opposition to the intelligent but simple religious farmer girl. And these are the last two people on Earth, as far as we know, following a nuclear apocalypse -- which of course was probably the fault of the scientists amirite? -- so it seems to take place in a simpler moral universe than "Mrs Frisby." I find that one a lot harder to swallow (although he's still a good writer and it keeps you invested with its postapocalyptic survival + tense mano-a-mano drama). But yeah. I like "Frisby" a lot better, for the reasons above, but as I said, I don't share that value so I have to appreciate the book in spite of it.


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