Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O'Brien

From the favourer: "37 years of primary school teaching inevitably led me to reading an enormous number of novels as serials to my classes. 'Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH' stood out as my own personal favourite, as well as being the favourite of many of the listeners. It's funny how a kid's book can end up as an adult's favourite...perhaps this is a statement on the teacher concerned?"

Given the amount of children's books that have turned up on this list of favourites, it's not uncommon for an adult's favourite book to be a book written for children. And given the amount of beautifully crafted nothings that circulate on the adult literary circuit, I think it makes sense for everyone's favourite book to be a children's book. Sorry, ranting. I'll stop now.

Mrs Frisby, a recently widowed mouse, lives during winter with her four children in a cement block buried in a wheat field. Each year when the thaw comes, the family move to their summer house away from the field, to avoid being chopped up by the farmer's plough. But this year, something is different. Little Timothy has had a close brush with pneumonia, and any exposure to cool air, even as the days temper towards spring, will be the death of him. When by chance Mrs Frisby saves the life of a crow, he offers to repay the favour by flying her to meet the wise old owl. The owl is initially unable to offer any advice about Mrs Frisby's situation, but when he learns that she is the widow of Jonathan Frisby, his manner changes. He suggests that she goes to see the rats that live in the rosebush. Mrs Frisby is puzzled - how could the rats help, and what do they have to do with her husband?

But these are no ordinary rats. Ordinary rats don't move in formation, work with electrics, and they certainly don't read. And their secret is bound up with Mrs Frisby and her family.

I first read Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH in grade 3, and remember being fascinated by the story of the rats, and wondering vaguely why Mrs Frisby was in it at all. Later I saw the animated film, which was great, but completely shifted the focus from the rats to Mrs Frisby's story. Which probably made for a good film, but it was really the rats that intrigued me, and probably many other readers.

Robert C. O'Brien intended to become a professional pianist (don't we all), but after working at a boys' summer camp as a student he learned about stories, and storytelling. He 'found that in the dark you don't read stories, you tell them, and this is the best training of all for learning what kinds of stories children like'. Later he worked as a newspaper reporter. When you read his fiction, you can see the influences of these two experiences on his writing - he writes a damn good story, and he writes it economically.

Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH is only 197 pages long, and there is not a single word wasted. It's pared-back, story-driven writing where every word works carefully to build tension, character and plot. There's no fluff. No wonder it worked well as a classroom serial. It's a killer story, and every time my baby woke up from a nap and I had to stop reading, I did the thing where I walked down the hall s-l-o-w-l-y to the nursery, still reading, to get a few more lines into those 10 steps. It's also a very serious book. There's the odd moment of dry humour:

' "When we don't know what to do, we ask [the owl]. Sometimes he answers our questions, sometimes he doesn't. It depends on how he feels. Or as my father used to say - what kind of humour he's in."
Or possibly, thought Mrs Frisby, on whether or not he knows the answer.'

If you've seen the movie, there's quite a bit of hilarity injected into the story, mostly via the crow Jeremy (who is an absolute riot in the movie, by the way. "OOH, A STHPARKLEEEEE"). In the book he's a minor character, almost a plot device, barely curling out a couple of chapters. He's certainly not the comedic foil of the movie:

But draw of the story is really created by the rats - their capture, the experiments performed on them at NIMH, and how this lead to their new life (and their aspirations for a rat utopia). I think it's why O'Brien won the Newbery Medal for this book in 1972 (won this year by Neil Gaiman's Graveyard Book). The science in the novel is vague enough not to date, but specific enough to be believable, and the way O'Brien builds the tension of their story is perfect. Even if you've never felt sympathy for a lab rat running a maze, you will after reading this book:

'I never got used to that feeling - no one ever does - but I did experience it many times, and eventually learned what it was: electric shock. It is not exactly a pain, but it is unbearable...You might ask: Why would I bother to run through it at all, if I knew it was only a trick? The answer is I couldn't help it. When you've lived in a cage, you can't bear not to run, even if what you're running towards is an illusion.'

A part of this book I really hadn't remembered is the emphasis on reading and the impact that being able to read and write has on a person (or rat). Reading can be a way of growing, escaping, but the knowledge it provides imposes new limits on the reading animal. The rats experience this in a fundamental way: 'By teaching us to read, they had taught us how to get away.' This sentence is embedded in the story, but it resonates above the literal sense it has here. The rats are liberated by their ability to read, but it also puts them in danger. They are different, and they need to adapt to manage their difference in the world. They also need to manage the heightened moral awareness that their knowledge provides.

That's a lot for a nine-year-old reader to take in. And I didn't, then. But it says a lot that this slim volume can provoke those sort of thoughts for me, 20 years after I first read it.

And also, it's such a damn cracker of a read.


Penni said...

This is definitely one of my favourites. I also LOVE The Silver Crown. His atmosphere crackles, and in Silver Crown I love the elliptical story, where so much is not told, but swirls under the surface like a spooky dream.

Anna said...

I've never read the Silver Crown, Penni. I thought I had, then today I realised I was thinking of Ian Serraillier's The Silver Sword. Which is SO NOT THE SAME BOOK, but there you go. Now I'll have to seek out the Silver Crown!

Penni said...

I think I have accidentally acquired two copies of The Silver Crown so you can have one of mine, if you want to email your address.

Anna said...

That's be great Penni - I've DM'd you my address on Twitter...