Jan. 25th, 2011

coraa: (house mouse)
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, by Robert C. O'Brien

When Mrs. Frisby's frailest child, Timothy, comes down with pneumonia, the doctor insists that he cannot be moved—cannot be taken outside—must remain safe and warm indoors. This presents a problem, though, because Mrs. Frisby is a fieldmouse, and the entire family must move house from the garden to the stream banks soon, lest their home be torn apart when the farmer plows the garden. Mrs. Frisby's quest for an answer leads her to a crow, an owl, and finally the mysterious rats who live beneath the rose bush... and who have an unexplained connection to Mrs. Frisby's late husband.

Oh, I adored this book when I was a kid. I read it for the first time when I was eight? nine? and then again every couple of years until I was in high school. This was my first re-read in a long while, though, and I was pleased by how well it stood up.

In a lot of ways, it's really a remarkable little book. If you leave aside the fact that Mrs. Frisby is clearly too intelligent to be a 'normal' fieldmouse, there's no magic in the book at all. Mrs. Frisby achieves everything she does through courage and fortitude, and the rats do their part through wits, intelligence and good planning (as well as a dose of bravery of their own). And, while the book does include unusual, even superhuman (superrodent?) characters, the heroine is a quite ordinary fieldmouse, a mother, sensible and kind and determined, and while there are other remarkable characters she remains central throughout. (Although I confess, I had a confused little cross-species crush on Justin. I still kind of do.)

Another thing about the book: there really aren't any villains. Even the humans who appear as antagonists are more like forces of nature than "bad guys," which makes perfect sense given their roles in the lives of the animals on the farm.

I think those two things are why I never really could love the movie The Secret of NIMH. On its own, it's not at all a bad animated film—and I'm not a stickler for accuracy in conversions of book to movie; I know that what makes a good book doesn't necessarily make a good movie. But The Secret of NIMH added both magic and a villain, and, to me, that took away a lot of what had made the book special.

Anyway. This is quite clearly a middle-grade book, but if you can see past that, I think it holds up quite well. I just reread it in one gulp, one sitting, one long bubble bath, and I'm glad I did. Highly recommended.

There is one way in which the book dates itself: the rats have gender roles, and the males seem to be in charge. I think the strength of Mrs. Frisby's character (in both sense of the word—she's as well-rounded, and as courageous, as anyone in the book) makes up for the implied gender inequity among the rats, but mileage may vary.

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