Stories I Like: Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH

When I was in 6th grade, my teacher read books to us in class.  I thought it was a bit funny at first – in 6th grade, we felt like big kids, too old to have storytime with our teacher.  But quickly I found my opinion changing, and that time of reading books became one of the highlights of the day.  A big reason for that was the book we started with: Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH was written by Robert C. O’Brien and published in 1971.  It is a Newbery Medal book, a reward specifically for outstanding contribution to children’s literature.  I have just been reading it again, this time out loud to my own children, and confirmed to my memory that it has all the good qualities that I recall:  an engaging plot with several mysteries to grip the reader, nicely and subtly developed characters, and a tone that neither panders to children nor leaves them behind.

Mrs. Frisby is a field mouse with a problem.  She is a widow, has four children, and has lived in a discarded cinder block in a farmer’s field over the winter.  Spring is coming, and the family must move before the farmer plows up the field (and their home) – but one of the children, Timothy, is recovering from pneumonia, and the move to their summer home while it’s still cold will certainly kill him.  In desperation she seeks advice from the old Owl in the forest, who has no help to give her until he learns her name.  At that point, she is told to seek assistance from the mysterious rats that live under the farmer’s rosebush.  This begins an odyssey in which Mrs. Frisby learns the rats’ secrets, and the unexpected connection that they have with her own late husband.

The book builds its tension in a wonderfully steady way, with each chapter increasing the reader’s desire to know what will happen to this field-mouse family, as well as to understand the truth about the rats and Mrs. Frisby’s own unknown family history.  By the time I first got to the middle of the book and began to learn the story of the rats, I was desperate to hear more (my children seemed to feel the same way).  For me, indeed, that was my favorite part of the story.  But the overall plight of Mrs. Frisby and the problem of her home created a necessary framework for that exploration of what a rat civilization might look like.

Far from talking down to the children in his audience, O’Brien encourages them to stretch up to grasp the rather mature (yet not at all inappropriate) concepts in his story.  He avoids broad strokes in creating his characters, and makes them feel very much like “real people,” so to speak.  Mrs. Frisby’s dilemma is easy to grasp and her concern, good sense, and courage feel very authentic and like I imagine any mother would be when her children are threatened.  Nicodemus, the leader of the rats, is battle-worn but visionary, and feels like the kind of leader anyone would be wise to follow.  Justin, the other central rat character, is kind and heroic, with a confident ease that makes the reader like him as much as the other characters do.  Even Jenner, a minor but important character who represents an opposing point of view to the rest of the rats, is treated with intelligence and sense that makes him easy to relate to.

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH was adapted into the movie Secret of NIMH in 1982.  I didn’t like the changes that were made especially to the characters and the tone.  Much of the subtlety and naturalism was lost with these alterations – Nicodemus was turned into a mystical old wizard, Jenner became a sniveling villain, and so on.  At the same time, the story’s violence and action were amped up quite a bit, and the parts of the story that I enjoyed the most were skimmed over quite lightly.  So I wasn’t crazy about the movie, although I know others like it.

The book, on the other hand, I highly recommend and consider its narrative to be gripping and satisfying, especially for younger readers.  As a young pre-teen, it completely grabbed my imagination, and remains enjoyable to me today.

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