Shanna Gonzalez'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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Jun 24, 09

bookshelves: children-08-12
Read in June, 2009

This is a masterfully crafted science-fiction fantasy about a widowed mouse and her young family, who live life on the edge of hunger at the Fitzgibbon farm. They choose for their winter home a cinder block buried in the farmer's field, where they can glean the humans' leavings. When her son Timothy becomes ill, Mrs. Frisby must choose between risking his life by exposing him to the weather in the move to their summer home, or risking the entire family by being at home on plowing day. In desperation, she visits the owl in the woods for counsel, and he tells her to visit the rats who live on the farm. When she does this, she discovers that an advanced rat society exists under cover of the rosebush. She learns that the rats have escaped from a place called NIMH (probably the National Institute for Mental Health) and are planning to end their parasitic existence on the farm (where they use the Fitzgibbons' electricity and other resources) by moving to the wilderness, where they will live simply but independently. Their plans are disrupted by the coming of representatives from NIMH, who have been trying to recapture them since their escape.

The premise of the story is interesting in itself, but it is the character development and the skillful unfolding of a suspenseful plot that make this story as wonderful as it is. The mouse family's situation is truly desperate,and the reader awaits poor Timothy's fate with nearly the amount of suspense as the entire rat colony. Mrs. Frisby's courageous resolve to save Timothy, facing down the owl in his own home despite her natural fear, models the kind of character that we want our children to aspire to.

She is additionally generous, kind and loyal; on discovering a crow trapped near the ground by foolishly attempting to pick up some shiny twine, she coolly risks her life to free him as the cat stalks nearer because "she could not leave the foolish crow there to be killed... just for want of a few minutes' work." In gratitude, he plays a key part in helping her save Timothy.

It is difficult to portray rats and mice (even literate ones) in an admirable light, but O'Brien manages to build such sympathy for their society that the death of two rats is felt sharply by the reader. In particular, the heroism of one rat in helping others to safety as poison gas fills the den leaves a mark of bittersweet admiration that is not quickly forgotten. In the end, the remaining colony follows through on their plans to develop an independent society in the wilderness, leaving behind forever their reputation as verminous thieves. This change does not come as a result of mental enhancement or education, but is a moral choice to value dignity and honor over luxury gained at others' expense.

A great science fiction premise, convincingly anthropomorphized animals, several heroic major characters, a strong value of loyalty, friendship and family, all combine under the pen of a skillful writer to make an unforgettable story.

Like many great books, this one was followed by two deeply disappointing and forgettable sequels by Jane Leslie Conly, O'Brien's daughter: R-T, Margaret, and the Rats of NIMH and Racso and the Rats of NIMH. I do not recommend wasting time on these, but the original title should not be missed.
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