Thursday, December 30, 2010

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH

"They sat down outside the entrance to the house and beginning at the beginning, with her first visit to the rats, she told them all that she had seen and done, and all that Nicodemus had told her."

Knowledge is a useful and powerful thing. The pursuit of knowledge has driven mankind forward for thousands of years, each generation producing ways of life that are faster and more technological. But does this pursuit come at a price? Does gaining knowledge require us to be more responsible? This is a question wrapped up inside Robert C. O'Brien's Newbery Award winning novel Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. Though it was written for children, this story has many hidden themes that will resonate with old and young alike.

The Plot:

Mrs. Frisby has a problem. Recently widowed and left to care for her four children, she must prepare them for their annual move from the garden in order to avoid Mr. Fitzgibbon's plows. But her younger son, Timothy, is sick with pneumonia and cannot be moved for many weeks. Whether she stays or goes, Timothy is put in very grave danger. Mrs. Frisby has no choice but to ask for help from the most capable (and the most mysterious) animals on the farm: the rats. Before she knows it, Mrs. Frisby finds herself in a world that she's never known before, and discovers the truth behind her husband's past.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

This was definitely one of the more interesting children's books I've read in a long time. It is a fairly complex story and the characters are well-drawn and engaging. You almost have to read this book from two points of view: that of a child and that of an adult.

If you are reading this as a child, I would imagine that the atmosphere and characters of the book would be what would grip you. O'Brien takes an ordinary farmyard and turns it into a place that is both dangerous and beautiful. Life and death occur daily here, and Mrs. Frisby's courage, and willingness to lay her life on the line for her family make her a truly endearing character. What is so great about this novel, is that O'Brien doesn't sugar-coat anything. Young readers are forced to face the world as it really is, a place where joy and grief, triumph and tragedy intermingle. Because of this, I would definitely recommend this book only for upper elementary and above.

Reading this as an adult, it was the rats that really interested me. Not just their civilization and the amazing story behind their intelligence, but also the point of "The Plan" itself. Nicodemus and the other rats want to move to Thorn Valley in order to live without stealing. Before they gained so much intelligence, the rats stole because that was the only way of life they knew. But as they learned more and more, something inside them changed and made them realize that stealing is wrong. O'Brien really seems to put forth the point that the more you know, the more you are responsible for your actions. In other words, knowledge awakens morality. The Bible often speaks about accountability, and being held responsible once you know right from wrong, and seeing these themes played out so deftly (almost imperceptibly) in a children's book was great. It really leaves you with some interesting ideas to reflect on.

All in all, it is a fun read. I definitely recommend reading this one to your kids if for no other reason than it will allow some great conversations to take place. It is someone dark and scary at times, and the ending is somewhat sad (if ambiguous), but I think that both you and your kids will enjoy it.

The Movie:

In 1982 animator Don Bluth released an animated version of the book called The Secret of NIMH. The film follows the basic plot pretty well, but they choose to add a mystical plot device versus dwelling on the rats' story, which weakens the overall effect in my opinion. The film is also much more dark and scary than even the book, so probably isn't a great bet for very small children.

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