Few books can be recommended primarily on the strength of their plot, but Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH is one of them. Most books achieve classic status because of the beauty of the prose and the depth of the themes, but sometimes the story itself is so compelling that you find yourself racing to the last page just to find out what happens.
It doesn't hurt that Robert C. O'Brien is a good writer, able to conjure images of nature and the trials of animal existence with the ease of highly intelligent lab rats running a maze. And the book is not without its themes—the self-sacrifice of a devoted mother for her children, the nobility of self-sufficiency, the questionable nature of conducting certain sorts of experiments on animals.
But what will keep future generations of readers coming back to Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH is its compelling plot. It's a very simple plot, too, but deceptively simple so that you don't realize how perfectly O'Brien's orchestrated every seemingly unimportant element until the last page is in sight.
Many readers will be immediately reminded of Richard Adams's masterpiece Watership Down. Like that rabbit saga, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH begins with a family of underground-dwelling animals in need of a new home because the farmer is about to plow up all his land. But instead of rabbits, this is a family of mice, and there's a catch: Timothy, Mrs. Frisby's youngest son, is sick with pneumonia and can't make the move.
At her wits's end, Mrs. Frisby (widow of the great and esteemed Jonathan Frisby) allows a crow named Jeremy to take her to visit the great wise owl who lives in a giant tree trunk. Owls eat mice, and Mrs. Frisby is terrified this owl might eat her, but instead he gives her one bit of advice in virtue of her being the widow of Jonathan Frisby: go see the rats.
The rats live under the rosebush at the edge of Farmer Fitzgibbon's garden, and they are secretive creatures with whom the other animals in the area don't have much contact. Mrs. Frisby is a bit afraid of them, but because she loves her children she goes to the rats, where the owl instructed her to use her husband's name like a password.
It works. Soon Mrs. Frisby is helping the rats devise a plan to rescue her family and keep Timothy from a relapse, as well as learning the whole tragic history of the rats. Which is where things get really interesting and really crazy. But since I've built up the plot so much, I can't really tell you what Mrs. Frisby learns about the rats and her late husband, nor what happens to her mouse family or the house they live in.
Again, just because the plot is so good, so original, and so well-crafted, doesn't mean O'Brien isn't good with words. He's great, in fact, writing exposition, dialogue, and description with such scrupulous economy and grace that one almost has the impression they aren't even reading at times.
Some fantasy novels, especially fantasy novels about animals, are too transparently fake. Either the animals are too human, or they can communicate with humans, or they just don't have the innate intelligence of animals. O'Brien masterfully avoids all these extremes both in the telling of his story, as well as in the very fabric of the mysterious and rewarding story itself.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
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