Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien (Atheneum Books, 1971) is a tale about a strong field mouse mother determined to save her family from the imminent danger that comes from the spring plowing. With the advice of a wise owl, she turns to the rats who live under the rosebush for help. The overall story also captures the history of the mysterious rats, and it prompts the reader to consider the essentials for civilization and even for our own humanity.
Mrs. Frisby needs help for her sick young son, for he may not survive if she has to move her family away from the farm before he is well. With the advice of other animal friends, including a friendly crow named Jeremy, an owl, and the wise mouse Mr. Ages, Mrs. Frisby finds the help she needs from the rats. To her surprise, her husband had been friends with these rats. All of them had escaped from a medical lab where injections had added strength, years, and the ability to learn to their lives. The rats agree to help move the Frisby’s home because of their affection for the now gone Jonathan. But while Jonathan Frisby may be gone, Mrs. Frisby turns out to be a big help to the rats as she is able to give them a warning they need to escape from the farm themselves.
It sounds almost ridiculous to think that a novel about mice and rats could tackle issues of humanity, but that is what the story does. With the rats’ improved abilities comes the desire to live morally, without stealing from the humans around them. They want to have the comfortable environments and moments for learning, but they find that the satisfaction is gone when they’ve simply stolen the comforts from humans. Thus, their civilization is not whole and complete unless they can all work for themselves. Even as the tale is full of adventure and clever science fiction, the underlying commentary gives the reader something to think about when considering community and what makes us “human.” In order for the rats to have their own community, it cannot overlap with the humans’ as it does now.
As an adult, I found it to be an enjoyable story, and the rats’ backstory is exciting. I remember this book with fondness, and I feel it is still a worthwhile read. My only complaints are about the 1970 gender norms. Mrs. Frisby is never given a first name. She is a widow and yet still defined in every way and throughout this entire book by her deceased husband. Among all the rats, only one female is named: a young rat named Isabel who has a crush on one of the rat leaders. Although 20 rats escaped from the lab, only about 6 or 7 male rats are ever named or referenced as leaders, and in fact we don’t know how many, if any, of the lab rats were female. No woman rats are included in the rat planning meetings either. Apparently I cannot even read a favorite childhood book without starting to notice these things, but it is glaringly obvious. My daughters even asked, “What’s her first name, Mom? Why is she always called Mrs. Jonathan Frisby? Isn’t he dead?”
About the audio: We listened to the audiobook of this title while we were driving together as a family. Much of the story is the rats telling their own backstory, and I’m sad to say that our listening times were infrequent enough that my 11-year-old daughter didn’t want to listen and my 8-year-old daughter was always asking me to remind her of what happened. I was so disappointed because I loved this book as a child! But, it was not a story that lent itself well to being read aloud, 20-40 minutes at a time, over the course of 2 months. The audio narration just seemed to drag.
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH was awarded the 1972 Newbery Medal. I rate it as “really good” and say “keep it and read it.”
Newbery rating scale: FANTASTIC | REALLY GOOD | PRETTY GOOD | OKAY | BLAH
What to do with this Newbery: KEEP IT AND READ IT | MAYBE IF YOU HAVE TIME | DON’T BOTHER