Award-Winning Books Genre Lifespan of a Reader Middle Grade Young Adult (YA) Literature

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

"When you’ve lived in a cage, you can’t bear not to run, even if what you’re running towards is an illusion."

Frisby10Myra here.

Generally, I do not enjoy novels where the protagonists or heroes are animals – the tales appear more like Aesop’s than anything else – where a moral would be gained at the end of the narration. I opened this book November of last year but opted to read Snyder’s The Headless Cupid instead, since going through the first chapter did not particularly excite me. It is only around last month that I decided to have another go, since reading Allende’s epic novel tired me out, and I wanted a light ‘children’s book’ that I could finish easily. Little did I know that this particular young reader’s book (with quite a number of nice illustrations on some of its pages) actually raises quite a number of ethical concerns and issues, and ultimately speaks about the struggle for freedom and independence and the gift that is family.

Narrative Style
The writer has a very casual yet direct and descriptive way of making the reader imagine what is happening. There are no unnecessary words used (he followed the law of parsimony) yet it does not detract in any way from the many adventures encountered by the characters in the story. He merely allowed the adventure to speak for itself without the author feeling the need to embellish or dramatize. Even the family moments, despite its being moving – or even the NIMH incidents, despite its being disturbing – appear to have a matter-of-fact-like quality to it, allowing the reader the space to conjure the appropriate emotions for herself, without the writer imposing it. He just tells the tale the way it happened – no philosophizing or psychologizing in the least. Yet I believe it is even more instrumental in making the book more gripping and airtight in its flow.

A Mother’s Courage
Mrs. Frisby is a widow with four children to raise on her own. The story is basically wound over Mrs. Frisby’s heroic attempts to save her family given that her youngest (and smartest) boy, Timothy, is very ill with pneumonia and could not be moved – truly a predicament since the entire family would have to relocate to their summer quarters immediately or they and their home would be crushed by Mr. Fitzgibbon’s tractor given the time of the year.

The narrative is a testament to the fact that this mother has a willingness to ride on a crow’s back (his name is Jeremy by the way and he has a predilection for shiny objects) despite the mother’s fear of heights. She also consulted the proverbial Wise Owl (very Winnie-the-pooh like) about her predicament despite the fact that an owl’s dietary habits include little mice such as herself, introduced herself to an army of highly intelligent rats (the Rats of NIMH) to ask for their help, and actually sneaked inside Mr. Fitzgibbon’s home to put sleeping powder in their Cat’s (aptly named Dragon) food bowl – all the while providing reassurance to her four children and making certain that they are well-fed and cared for each day.

The beautiful thing about Mrs. Frisby’s character is that she does all of these things as a matter of course – that she would calmly and sensibly exhaust all avenues given to her to protect her family – without fanfare, applause, or grandiose posturing. It is merely what a mother does.

The Guinea Rats
As a psychologist who is more than keenly familiar with the usage of rats as guinea pigs inside a laboratory setting, I got hooked when I found out (quite a few chapters into the book) that NIMH actually means National Institute for Mental Health. Yes, the Rats of NIMH are more intelligent than the average rodents because they have escaped from the cold clinical clutches of scientists (led by a Dr. Schultz) who injected them with a serum that is meant to make them smarter (they could actually READ), increase their lifespan tenfold (yes, they are in essence The Immortal Rats), and make them stronger and more adroit than your average cheese-stealing and shoe-gnawing rat.

As humans, we have very little concern about how these poor rats actually feel when kept and trapped in solitary cages for greater academic enlightenment (and more papers to submit to refereed journals for publication). Yet the author, who took the vantage point of the rat, was able to paint a picture of what it must be like for them, as could be noted in the following quote:

“As it turned out, the uncertainty itself was the worst suffering we had to undergo. We were treated well enough, except for some very small, very quick flashes of pain, which were part of our training. And we were always fed, though the food, scientifically compiled pellets, was not what you’d call delicious.”
Page 108

Dr. Schultz’s lines were actually reminiscent of Psychology 115 or Experimental Psychology – although they did not do a double blind in their experiment – with the presence of a control group and their making certain that all conditions, apart from the actual treatment condition, would be kept equal. Ceteris Paribus – all things being equal – to make certain that whatever changes that would take place in their guinea rats are brought about by their manipulation of the treatment condition.

Since the experiment is actually a huge success (the rats knew ahead of the humans how much they have changed), the rats became intelligent enough to manufacture their own escape – despite the sterile conditions imposed by the scientists and their making certain that there are no feasible means for the rats to free themselves. Yet, the question of where they would go once they gain their freedom became an even more pressing concern: since they are not the same rats they used to be before they were captured and brought to the NIMH. As was pointed out by one of the Guinea Rats:

“The real point is this: We don’t know where to go because we don’t know what we are. Do you want to go back to living in a sewer-pipe? And eating other people’s garbage? Because that’s what rats do. But the fact is, we aren’t rats anymore.We’re something Dr. Schultz has made. Something new. Dr. Schultz says our intelligence has increased more than one thousand per cent. I suspect he’s underestimated; I think we’re probably as intelligent as he is – maybe more.”
Page 137

Now talk about rats going through an existential crisis and striving to derive meaning from their existence. Not all young adults even go through such a phase of active questioning about who they are. Reading about this actually reminded me of another book that I have read before, Flowers for Algernon which highlighted how a formerly mentally-retarded guy was transformed into a genius through experimentation and its moral and ethical underpinnings.

This is primarily the reason why I decided to re-categorize this to the Sci-fi-ish section rather than just include it in the generic YA fiction. There are a lot of ethical issues that could be discussed as a function of scientific experiments gone right (or wrong, depending on which perspective you are looking at). And while it may not create new hi-tech worlds and such with difficult-sounding names, it does speak of a parallel universe where rats have their own culture, realities, and intelligences. Pretty sci-fi-ish, really.

The Promise Land: What Comes Next
Along with their existential queries naturally came the rats’ growing discontent with how they lead their lives and their dependence on humans for their food. Their new found intelligence, has made them more cognizant and more socially aware of the fact that their being considered pests and the absolute dregs of society come from the fact that they merely feed off people’s rejects and garbage. Hence, Nicodemus’ (their leader) search for a Promised Land where they could begin a new civilization since according to him:

“We’re just living on the edge of somebody else’s, like fleas on a dog’s back. If the dog drowns, the fleas drown too (page 175).”

Naturally, there are two factions as regards this view point. There is another group of rats (led by Jenner) who believes that there is nothing morally wrong with stealing given that humans also steal for their own meal. As Jenner pointed out:

“Is it stealing when farmers take milk from cows, or eggs from chickens? They’re just smarter than the cows and chickens, that’s all (page 174-175).”

This did not deter, however, a more significant number from exploring a Utopian Civilization for Rats where they could be self-sufficient and more productive, and live out the rest of their really long lives in relative peace and aesthetic bliss. This is what they call the Master Plan of the NIMH Rats. To show how excited they are, these are some of the things they have in store for themselves:

“We’ve got seeds; we have our plows; we’ve cleared and cultivated part of the land near the pond and in a few days we’ll begin our first planting. We’ve even dug some irrigation ditches, in case there’s a drought.”
Page 177

End Notes
O’Brien left the story hanging. He did not say anything as to whether the rats were able to actualize their dream. There were some lives sacrificed in the process of their reaching their objective. However, what is perhaps more essential here, is the fact that they even went as far as to Dream about having their own civilization, and making concrete plans to make it come into fruition, despite very evident setbacks and the fact that Dr. Schultz and all the other psychiatrists would give both an arm and a leg to have these rats back in their cages once more for further experimentation. They have indeed broken free and sought to make meaning out of their freedom.

I would definitely recommend this to teachers who are teaching secondary level or even those who are in Junior College – with students who are pretty much absorbed with experimentation, scientific discoveries, and animal dissection. For gifted students, the moral issues raised are likewise worthy of long drawn-out discussions: what constitutes morally wrong from what is scientifically viable, and from whose lenses are good and evil perceived. Good discussion for Philosophy and Ethics classes as well.

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

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Myra is a Teacher Educator and a registered clinical psychologist based in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates. Prior to moving to the Middle East, she lived for eleven years in Singapore serving as a teacher educator. She has edited five books on rediscovering children’s literature in Asia (with a focus on the Philippines, Malaysia, India, China, Japan) as part of the proceedings for the Asian Festival of Children’s Content where she served as the Chair of the Programme Committee for the Asian Children’s Writers and Illustrators Conference from 2011 until 2019. While she is an academic by day, she is a closet poet and a book hunter at heart. When she is not reading or writing about books or planning her next reads, she is hoping desperately to smash that shuttlecock to smithereens because Badminton Is Life (still looking for badminton courts here at UAE - suggestions are most welcome).

3 comments on “Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien

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