Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH

I think that the last time I read Robert O'Brien's childrens' novel was when I was a child. I can vaguely remember enjoying it, but can remember little beyond that. As an adult reading it, I think I had some of an adult distaste for rats, and found it sometimes quite uncomfortable reading - in the same way that, although I do enjoy the film, I occasionally find Disney's Ratatouille uneasy viewing.

A little background first - Mrs. Frisby, a widowed fieldmouse, is shortly due to move house, but when her youngest son becomes seriously ill the family are trapped in a home which is about to be ploughed up. Advised to go to the rats for help, Mrs. Frisby meets a group of ex-lab rats. The experimentation that had been done on them had resulted in a race of superintelligent rats able to read, write, and control electricity. They are now planning to set up their own civilization, and have started to collect seed for their first attempts at farming on a large-scale.

It's a very interesting idea, I even think it may have been one of the first novels that dealt with animal experimentation in a serious fashion, and it's clearly been very influential - obviously on Ratatouille, but also I would think on Richard Adam's The Plague Dogs.

Where I have a real problem with Mrs. Frisby is the anthropomorphism, I don't doubt for a moment the intelligence of rats. I also think the idea of the lab making them more intelligent is interesting, and by no means impossible, but I do think that capabilities are limited by biology, and the idea of rats building up a library of paperbacks, and being able to manipulate them to read them, just struck me as daft. And I think this is a real problem for the book. The basic storyline, the way the rats are portrayed, the adventure narrative are all great and ideal for say a 10 year old, who I'm sure would find it much more believable. The problem is where the science intersects - there's a very early mention in here, for example, of DNA, this suggests an older readership - but that older readership would struggle like me with the anthropomorphism, so it straddles an uneasy line between the suspension of disbelief of a child and an adult.

I don't think I would read it again, but it's an interesting read. Definitely a book I would encourage a child to read, and Justin, the hero rat, is a great character.


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