Robert C. O'Brien's Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH
Book review by Billy Dickerson
What would a society built by rats look like?
I’d seen the Don Bluth classic animated movie The Secret of NIMH, and I’d always wanted to read Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, which the movie was based on, but for some reason, I could never get past getting my hands on the book.
I’d borrowed it from the library several times, but always returned it unread. I think part of the reason is that based on past experience with books turned into movies, I would be disappointed with how the two stories were so different.
A few years ago, I was student teaching for my Elementary Education degree and I picked up a copy at a book fair to help support the school. It still sat around in my collection until a few weeks ago. I decided that I needed to read the book, and forget about the comparison of the story in the movie. I would try to enjoy each of them as their own narrative. That is how I finally got myself to read Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien. I’m glad I finally made it happen.
Review: Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH
There are really two stories in this tale. First, we learn about Mrs. Jonathan Frisby, a recently widowed mouse with three young children to take care of. The family has been wintering in a concrete block in Farmer Fitzgibbons’ field. It is the perfect home, but the block will be moved when the farmer starts his spring planting. This wouldn’t be a problem if it weren’t for the fact that Mrs. Frisby’s youngest child, Timothy, is very ill and probably won’t survive the trip to the family’s summer home.
Mrs. Frisby makes the dangerous journey to visit an old family friend, Mr. Ages, who provides her with a medicine, but little hope, since Timothy can’t go out into the cold for several months if he wants to avoid getting sick again.
On her trip home, two very important things happen. First, Mrs. Frisby rescues a crow named Jeremy who is caught up in some string his is trying to collect. He promises to help her if he ever can before he flies away. Second, Spring is coming early, and Farmer Fitzgibbons will be plowing the field soon. This is not a good situation since Timothy will probably not manage well with the move.
Mrs. Frisby turns to Jeremy for help, and he takes her to an ancient owl for advice. The owl, after hearing that she is the widow of Jonathan Frisby, tells her to go see the rats in the rose bush and ask for Justin and Nicodemus. This is where we encounter the second story.
After telling the rats her identity and her problem, she is let in on a little secret. The rats in the rose bush were part of a scientific experiment to increase both intelligence and longevity. It also turns out that both Jonathan and Mr. Ages were also experimented upon in the same experiment. Nicodemus tells Mrs. Frisby the story of how they came to be as well as how they had managed to create a fairly high-tech world with elevators and lights.
The rats have two plans, one to help Mrs. Frisby, and one to help themselves. For Mrs. Frisby, they will move her winter house and for themselves, they will move to a remote home in the mountains and try to create a rat society without depending on what men have created already.
There are so many things going on with Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, and so many issues you can address with the themes that are approached in this account. Nicodemus talks a lot about rats creating their own society and getting away from living off the humans. There is the issue of experimenting on animals or looking at the relationship between rats and humans. Perhaps you want to talk about the importance of education and being able to read. I’m not sure what ideas you will come up with because there are so many approaches to this story.
In the Newberry Medal winning novel, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh, Robert C. O’Brien shows what it takes to win that medal. This book has multiple stories that help the reader to explore difficult concepts. Read the story with your child and then compare it to the movie to help spur some conversations. Both the book and the movie are worth exploring.
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