Monday, March 14, 2011

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

Short review: Mrs. Frisby discovers that the rats who share the garden with her are more than they seem. What is humanity's responsibility if we make animals sentient?

Mrs. Frisby calls
Nicodemus answers her
Jenner is a fool

Full review: I read and enjoyed Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH and watched the movie The Secret of NIMH which is based upon it when I was about the same age my animal-loving daughter is now. So, naturally when she was looking for a book to read I handed this to her. She read about a third of it and decided it was boring and stopped reading. This prompted me to pick up the book and read through it to see if I was merely remembering it with the rose colored glasses of youth. It turns out, that not only is Mrs. Frisby as good as I remember it being, it is actually much better than that.

Mrs. Frisby is the central character in the action, a widowed field mouse living with her children on the Fitzgibbon farm. The family lives in the farmer's fields during the winter, and moves to another location for the summer to avoid being killed during the spring plowing. Unfortunately for Mrs. Frisby, her youngest son Timothy falls ill, after consulting the wise old mouse Mr. Ages, she learns that he cannot be moved. Mrs. Frisby rescues a crow, who takes her to see a wise owl to get advice. Upon learning that she is the widow of Johnathan Frisby, she is sent to see the rats of NIMH, a secretive bunch that live under a rose bush in the Fitzgibbons' garden. Once she meets up with the rats and their leader Nicodemus, the real story of the book unfolds.

It turns out that the rats are the result of genetic experiments in a lab that goes by the acronym NIMH. They have human intelligence, can read and write, use machines, and electricity. It turns out that Jonathan Frisby (and Mr. Ages) were also part of the experiment. The mice agree to move Mrs. Frisby's house if she will drug the farmer's cat. She is captured and learns that people from NIMH have discovered where the rats are and intend to come and exterminate them prompting the rats to put into motion their plan to evacuate and try to set up their own society where they can live without acting as parasites on human labor. Mrs. Frisby is front and center throughout the action, which makes her a rare and well written example of a female protagonist in a young adult book that is not specifically aimed at girls.

The story, originally written in 1971, seems remarkably ahead of its time. The rats are modified using genetic engineering (how this is done other than through a series of injections isn't explained, although since the story is told from the rats' perspective, and they don't fully understand it, this is understandable). Having created rodents with human (or close to human) intelligence, the response of the people who uncover them is immediately to try to exterminate them. This raises a lot of serious questions for a book aimed at children - having made the rats sentient, do the humans owe them respect? The book, told from the perspective of the various animals, clearly advocates for their side. And the sad thing is, when confronted by a non-human intelligence (even if it is one we created ourselves), the "destroy it" response of the human actors in the story seems altogether too plausible. With genetic engineering becoming part of the ordinary landscape of science now, the serious questions about what responsibility humans will have for their creations are being pushed to the forefront. Although it is unlikely that a situation will develop like that of the rats in the book, the broader questions concerning the technology remain.

The only real weakness of the book is that, given the behavior of the unmodified animals in the story - mostly Mrs. Frisby, the crow Jeremy, and the wise old owl - there seems to have been little need to modify the rats to give them intelligence. Mrs. Frisby is able to read, having been taught by her husband. She, Jeremy, and the owl are capable of holding extended and somewhat abstract conversation, and so on. Granted, to make a story involving talking animals work, some concessions in this area have to be made, but it lessens the impact of the increased intelligence that the rats have been given to have other animals seemingly not more than a tiny step behind them. Really, the only difference between the rats and the other animals appears to be that the rats can use machines, but it appears that Mrs. Frisby, given a little instruction, would have no trouble using the machines too. In the end though, this is merely a quibble and doesn't seriously detract from the story.

As a final note, I must point out that the book diverges from the movie in significant ways. The most important of which is that there is no mystical element in the book - the rats are enhanced by genetic engineering, and there is no magical amulet. Secondly, though Jenner is equally misguided in the book as he is in the movie, he is not as villainous in the book. His actions cause trouble for the rat colony, but the harm is unintentional and he doesn't actually appear "on camera". It is clear to me that these elements were added to the story to "punch up" the action and give the story an antagonist that was not human. Apparently the idea of a story in which the "villains" were humans opposing a colony of rats sounded like a box office loser to someone somewhere in the production chain, and thus Jenner was made into a classic animated animal villain. These changes make the story definitely different, and in my opinion, detract from it. However, the book itself is, of course, unaffected leaving us the superior story for our reading pleasure.

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  1. I loved this book and so did my kids - they still do! We've never seen the movie. I too felt the book was way ahead of its time - quite the parable for the human race.

  2. I agree, the book was way ahead of its time with the whole genetic engineering angle. I always wonder what other books O'Brien might have written (he only wrote a handful) had he not started his writing career so late and died so early.

    I'm planning on writing a seperate crtitque of the movie some time this week.

  3. I watched the movie as a kid, and was very excited to find the book in my middle school library, years later. This story was one of the earlier examples I found of societal commentary, which is still a type of message I enjoy reading about. =)