Title: Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.
Author: Robert C. O'Brien.
Genre: Fiction, children's lit, fantasy, animals.
Publication Date: 1971.
Summary: Mrs. Frisby, a widowed mouse with four small children, must move her family to their summer quarters immediately, or face almost certain death. But her youngest son, Timothy, lies ill with pneumonia and must not be moved. Fortunately, she encounters the rats of NIMH, an extraordinary breed of highly intelligent creatures, escaped form a laboratory and on an epic mission of their own, who come up with a brilliant solution to her dilemma when they find out her family is connected to their very origins.
My rating: 8.5/10.
My review: This book misinformed me of its intentions, lured me in, and then traumatized me. But I am far from complaining - I loved how dark and different this book turned out to be. All I had to go off is that I had heard about the animated feature (although I didn't know it was made by Bluth, which would have been a big clue), and I'd read the back, which advertised to be a cute children's story about some super rats helping out a mouse with her sick son. What it turned out to be was a darkly philosophical work on the ethics of animal experimentation and enhancement, the nature of consciousness and sentience, and the understanding and subsequent creation of a society by newly sentient beings. It was that concept that fascinated me most of all - the ethical repercussions of implanting sentience into a creature who, as a downside to human intelligence and a very long life, would become conscious of both a lack of a place for it within the world, and the understanding that it is now a mix of species that threatens and is unwelcome by both of those species. I loved the backstory of the capture, experimentation on, escape, and education of the rats - I was glad to find that the mouse and her sick son were only a frame around the larger bulk of the story of the rats of NIMH is built.
♥ Birdbrain, thought Mrs. Frisby, and then recalled what her husband used to say: The size of the brain is no measure of its capacity. And well she might recall it, for the crow's head was double the size of her own.
♥ "Then we must hope for another frost, or that the tractor will break down. I wish someone would drive a tractor through his house and see how he likes it." So muttering, the lady shrew moved off, and Mrs. Frisby continued across the garden. The remark was illogical, of course, for they both knew that without Mr. Fitzgibbon's plow there would be no garden to live in at all, and there was no way he could turn the earth without also turning up their houses.
♥ "When we don't know what to do, we ask him. 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 a humor he's in."
Or possibly, thought Mrs. Frisby, on whether or not he knows the answer.
♥ "I have lived in this tree, in this same hollow," the owl said, "for more years than anyone can remember. But now, when the wind blows hard in winter and rocks the forest, I sit here in the dark, and from deep down in the bole, down near the roots, I hear a new sound. It is the sound of strands of wood creaking in the cold and snapping one by one. The limbs are falling; the tree is old, and it is dying. Yet I cannot bring myself, after so many years, to leave, to find a new home and move into it, perhaps to fight for it. I, too, have grown old. One of these days, one of these years, the tree will fall, and when it does, if I am still alive, I will fall with it."
♥ "Are you Justin?" Mrs. Frisby inched back as the rat inched forward.
"I'm Brutus. Justin's not here." That was reasonably obvious, Mrs. Frisby thought.
♥ (It was about this time, too, that I began to wonder, and worry somewhat, about the fact that whatever we ate, whatever we needed, must always be stolen. Rats had always lived that way. And yet—why? I talked to some of the others about this. It was the beginning of a discontent and an idea that kept growing, although slowly.)
. . .
"If the ants can do it, Nicodemus says, if the bees can do it, so can we."
"Why, live without stealing, of course. That's the whole idea. That's the Plan."
♥ There were two sets of encyclopedias that had sections on rats. From them we learned that we were about the most hated animals on earth, except maybe snakes and germs.
That seemed strange to us, and unjust. Especially when we learned that some of our close cousins—squirrels, for instance, and rabbits—were well liked. But people think we spread diseases, and I suppose possibly we do, though never intentionally, and surely we never spread as many diseases as people themselves do.
Still, it seemed to us that the main reason we were hated must be that we always lived by stealing. From the earliest times, rats lived around the edges of human cities and farms, stowed away on men's ships, gnawed holes in their floors and stole their food. Sometimes we were accused of biting human children; I didn't believe that, nor did any of us—unless it was some kind of a subnormal rat, bred in the worst of city slums. And that, of course, can happen to people too.
♥ I was reminded of a story I had read at the Boniface Estate when I was looking for things written about rats. It was about a woman in a small town who bought a vacuum cleaner. Her name was Mrs. Jones, and up until then she, like all of her neighbors, had kept her house spotlessly clean by using a broom and a mop. But the vacuum cleaner did it faster and better, and soon Mrs. Jones was the envy of all the other housewives in town—so they bought vacuum cleaners, too.
The vacuum cleaner business was so brisk, in fact, that the company that made them opened a branch factory in the town. The factory used a lot of electricity, of course, and so did the women with their vacuum cleaners, so the local electric power company had to put up a big new plant to keep them all running. In its furnaces the power plant burned coal, and out of its chimneys black smoke poured day and night, blanketing the town with soot and making all the floors dirtier than ever. Still, by working twice as hard and twice as long, the women of the town were able to keep their floors almost as clean as they had been before Mrs. Jones ever bought a vacuum cleaner in the first place.
The story was part of a book of essays, and the reason I had read it so eagerly was that it was called "The Rat Race"—which, I learned, means a race where, no matter how fast you run, you don't get anywhere. But there was nothing in the book about rats, and I felt bad about the title because, I thought, it wasn't a rat race at all, it was a People Race, and no sensible rats would ever do anything so foolish.
♥ It was this, of course, that made our life so easy that it seemed pointless. We did not have enough work to do because a thief's life is always based on somebody else's work.
♥ All these things we worried about and talked about and puzzled over. But we could not find any easy answer—because there was none.
There was, however, a hard answer.
♥ "But why? Why move? We've got a better place to live right now. We've got all the food we want. We've got electricity, and lights, and running water. I can't understand why everybody talks about changing things."
"Because everything we have is stolen."
"That's silly. 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. Well, people are our cows. If we're smart enough, why shouldn't we get food from them?"
"It's not the same. Farmers feed the cows and chickens and take care of them. We don't do anything for what we take. Besides, if we keep it up, we're sure to be found out."
"What then? What if we are? People have been trying to exterminate rats for centuries, but they haven't succeeded. And we're smarter than the others. What are they going to do? Dynamite us? Let them try. We'll find out where they keep the dynamite and use it on them."
"Then we'd really be found out. Don't you see, Jenner, if we ever did anything like that, they'd figure out who we are and what we know? Then only two things could happen. Either they'd hunt us all down and kill us, or they'd capture us and put us in a sideshow, or maybe take us back to Nimh. And this time we'd never get away."
"I don't believe any of that," Jenner said. "You've got this idea stuck in your head. We've got to start from nothing and work hard and build a rat civilization. I say, why start from nothing if you can start with everything? We've already got a civilization."
"No. We haven't. 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."