Today’s readalong discussion is Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH! Are you ready to have your heart warmed by a valiant young mouse? To swoon over a dashing rat captain of the guard? (Yes, you read that correctly.) We all loved this month’s book, so let’s dive right in.
As always, while we’re always hoping that our discussions will encourage new readers to pick up these books, we do discuss specific spoilers in each story.
Wendy: I’m very fond of extraordinarily handsome rats. :D
Layla: I first read this in junior high school (and still have my copy today, boo-yeah!). I remember avoiding Frisby for awhile because I was really into fantasy novels and thought the cover / title were unappealing. Boy howdy was I wrong. I loved this book as a kid and I still love it now; it has officially withstood the test of time for me. However, it did take me until the age of 30 (i.e. now) to figure out what NIMH stood for. I JUST got that, you all. *slow claps*
Wendy: It didn’t even occur to me as a child to wonder what NIMH stood for, but as an adult I figured it out! I loved The Secret of Nimh movie as a child, then loved the book, and I’m happy to find that it’s even better than I remember. I appreciate O’Brien’s style and technique so much better now-the organic way everything is revealed, just as Mrs. Frisby would have discovered it, is in marked contrast to the way many MG/YA books are hustled and rushed for us.
Layla: I haven’t seen the film, but I’m curious now.
Kim: I purposely did not read this book as a child because I perceived “NIMH” as some sort of fantasy realm. And fantasy is for…losers, you guys….obviously. I just wasn’t interested in reading a book about fantastical rats. More was the pity for me then! And yes, I was totally surprised to discover what NIMH was an adult. I was still expecting a total fantasy land.
Wendy: How past Kim would have been surprised at present Kim.
Layla: My favorite part of this book as a child was obviously all of the parts where the rats are being experimented on, because I was a predictably grim little nugget. I remember being utterly fascinated by all of the tests that they had to undergo. As a child I wanted the scenes at NIMH to be longer. I liked tests in school. I liked reading about tests in school. I liked reading about tests at NIMH! Guess what, that’s still true. It’s maybe a little sick (they’re being experimented on, I knoooow) but I was really curious to see how else they’d be tested. I.e., I wanted to know about them running through a maze where they had to read! while they do that out in the wild in the maze OF LIFE, I wanted to know if the scientists would ever figure out just how smart the rats had become.
Wendy: The tests were very cool! It would have been great to see more specifics of that, though I very much enjoyed what was portrayed. I loved the brief observations from the people, too, when Justin escapes the first time and does exactly what they expected him to do. The way they talked about him, and the intelligence and reasoning portrayed by the rats, was the most fun part of the book for me, too.
Layla: Something I missed entirely the first time I read this book – which was one of my childhood favorites, mind you – was the entire discussion about evolution. Yep. I knew there were rats and that they were super smart. And that they had to help Mrs. Frisby. But the entire storyline about them trying to start over and live independently and by a new ethical code? MISSED IT. So I was really surprised and interested in that this time around. How do you feel about that? I mean, it’s interesting, it’s almost what might now be a survivalist mentality (but without the apocalyptic overtones?). But is also kind of a callback to 19th-century American philosophy, maybe? The emphasis on being self-sufficient and self-reliant and the idea that these things are a moral good. (Although the novel also develops these things as an evolutionary good as well). Also, I know very little about 19th-century utopian communities but that is what this reminded me of in some ways.
Wendy: I missed this as a child, too! I didn’t consider all the ramifications that you have in relation to philosophy, but I do think it’s fascinating that this story of animals evolving also includes their ethical evolution as well as their physical one. They consider the moral ramifications of their behavior in a way we don’t see the humans do in experimenting on animals. I’m curious what message O’Brien meant to send–it’s very subtly done. I don’t get the impression he’s anti-science at all, but perhaps he’s just advocating for the responsible use of it.
Layla: I don’t think anti-science, but I think there’s definitely some anxiety there over maybe what kind of science it is and how it’s practiced. If it’s being used to save little baby mouse lives, I think it’s good. If it’s being used to make your life easier (i.e., taking electricity from humans to power rat-elevators), it’s more ethically suspect. And I think there’s also some fear and trepidation over how much control you really have over the experiments you’re running … i.e., that the mice and rats learn much faster and better than the scientists could have ever suspected. Come on, guys, don’t teach the rats to READ and leave instructions to opening their cages around!
Wendy: Silly scientists. Always creating their own worst nightmares.
Kim: If I had read this as a child I imagine I would have become a very ardent fan of rats in general. And also probably been very vocal against animal testing.
Layla: Did you guys see this? Apparently Frisby was based in part off of Calhoun’s experiments. Super interesting – and in a kind of meta way, too. Rats as surrogates for humans and/or human anxieties in experiment! Rats as the same in the book.
Wendy: I actually did know that in passing, though I hadn’t read that article. Fascinating.
Layla: I now really want to read fanfic that is set like … thousands of years after Frisby, but beginning from the moment where scientists experiment w/ rats at NIMH and then like is about how the rats evolve over time and take over the world and/or live peacefully with humanity. Whatever floats your boat. But I really want fic about this.
Wendy: I’m not a big fan fic person, but I would read the shit out of fanfic that involved interspecies shipping between rat and mouse. Has anyone read the sequels? Do we know if Justin lived?! If I recall correctly, the movie is pretty clear that he dies. This was devastating to young Wendy, and it still gives me a pang. I do believe this is the first time I’ve had an animal on my “crush-worthy boys” shelf. He’s so strong and brave and kind! Arrrrrgh.
Kim: I have never supported a sentence Wendy has said as much I support the first sentence in the above paragraph.
Layla: True. That. I assumed he died. Does he not die? Do I need to check Wikipedia?
Wendy: It’s ambiguous in the book, though strongly implied that he dies, of course. There’s still that tiniest sliver of hope…
Layla: I checked. Kim, be sad no longer! Justin lives! O’Brien implies he dies, but don’t worry, his daughter resurrects him. That’s what happens when you’re a fan favorite, Spike can tell you. Also, for crush-worthy animals, let me remind you both of the fox from Disney’s Robin Hood. He is the only animal I will stick on my crush-worthy boys and girls shelf. [Insert a mental picture of that total fox here!] Oooo-de-lally!
Kim: If O’Brien didn’t write it I can’t really accept it as canon that Justin lives. It pains me to say that it sounds like wish fulfillment on his daughter’s part. Especially because it is clear that, at best, O’Brien wanted it to be ambiguous whether Justin lived or not and that this was probably on purpose. Sometimes we don’t get resolutions in life. It’s good for young readers to know that.
Wendy: Yeah, as much as I love the idea of Justin living, it’s also a disappointment that the daughter went that route. It seems clear what O’Brien meant us to infer, and it rather takes away the nobility of his sacrifice/death as well. At least, insofar as just the bare facts of it–perhaps she handles it well, I don’t know.
Layla: Would you go with Jenner or would you try to be a part of The Plan? I would absolutely go with Jenner. If we have just spent a few years building a whole new rodent civilization, I don’t want to destroy it willy-nilly! On another note, a thing I liked about this book was that Jenner doesn’t turn out to be a villain. He’s not on board with the plan, but he doesn’t come back and try to sabotage everything, the way I suspected that he would. My expectations as a reader were totally wrong! And I liked that.
By the way, we just had a snowstorm in NC and I was without power for 12+ hours and I was really unhappy. Never leaving civilization, Nicodemus, and you can’t make me. TEAM JENNER ALL THE WAY.
Kim: Um 5000% I would go with Jenner. It’s a very beautiful and noble vision to be all, “We will build our own land. We will not steal and will be totally sufficient.” But my goals basically envision watching Netflix and drinking wine so…yes, I will steal off of humans. Sorry, noble rats of NIMH. I am but a worthless human!
Wendy: I don’t think the amount of electricity the rats were using would have been significant–and blowing up all the equipment does seem extreme. Jenner is definitely more nuanced/interesting in the book, even though we don’t see much of him. That was the one change from book to movie that I have mixed feelings about–while I understand the want for an antagonist you can see for a visual medium (versus the humans, which you mostly do not), he and Jeremy are both much more typical.
Layla: Favorite character? Mine is maybe Nicodemus. Or Dragon. He has seven claws, you guyssss. Also, my favorite line of the WHOLE BOOK is: “We all help one another against the cat.”
Wendy: I know it’s a cliché, but Justin is my favorite. <3 So gallant and kind! But I love sweet, brave Timothy as well. Considering his possible death and trying to reassure his mother. I also love Mrs. Frisby and her quiet determination to do everything she needs to–I particularly love the scene when she’s flying on the crow’s back. I love the Owl. (HE WON’T EAT YOU IN HIS OWN HOME. PROBABLY.) I love Jeremy, unable to resist shiny objects but sure of his debt to his small savior. And I love Jonathan. It’s rare to have a character who is completely absent from a book in a physical sense but whose personality comes through so strongly. Just about everyone is so kind. And decent. It’s comforting.
Kim: Wait, how is it cliché to love Justin?? He is very clearly and obviously the best. As I was reading this (for the very first time, mind you) I’m like, “Wow. Justin is an obviously great character worthy of all our admiration. In fact, this is weird, but if he wasn’t a rat I would quite fancy him!” So now I guess now I have a rat on my “book boyfriends” shelf. And also every single character Wendy lists. Timothy is such a sage old soul. I loved how he asserted, “I didn’t know. I thought it.” My heart pangs a little with wishing I could’ve known Jonathan, he was such a real character even though not present. I understand this was very much a book of the 60’s, but I would’ve loved to know what Mrs. Frisby’s first name is, though!
Wendy: It’s probably Jane. There are so many J names in this book, did you notice? Jeremy, Jonathan, Justin…
Layla: … not? I assumed loving Nicodemus would be, tho!
Wendy: You know, I read a few reviews after I finished that mentioned how the readers were annoyed with the “it’s no job for a lady” remark, which they regarded as extremely sexist but I didn’t take offense to at all. I mean, she’s a widow and a mother of four, not to mention a small mouse who has never done anything daring. I read that as a chivalrous protest, not an anti-feminist “you’re incapable of doing this” remark. And indeed, she proves she is capable of more than even she knew. Did anyone here get his or her feathers ruffled by that?
Layla: Eh, I didn’t want to throw the book across the room or anything, but yeah, I was bothered by that. Chivalrous protest, sure, but that feels like benevolent sexism to me. There are good reasons for her not to do it of course – she’s the sole provider for four baby mice, although I’m sure the rats would step in if needed.
Wendy: Interesting. Being that the author wrote the story to specifically show that this small creature could and did overcome the odds, perhaps he was actually making an argument for independence? And against prejudice/preconceived notions, whether it was against females or those who appear frail on the surface. Mrs. Frisby surprises us, as does Timothy–and even Jonathan.
Layla: Here’s a question though – why don’t they just poison Dragon? As a general question, it’s something I’ve been wondering about. It would really save you the treacherous trips running to his bowl every time you want to do something if you just … poisoned his food. Come on, super-smart rats. Don’t tell me you didn’t think of it.
Wendy: Maybe it’s against their moral code. Though perhaps if they’d known what was to come… :(
Layla: WHEN THE RATS GET BLOWN AWAY OMGGGGGG. Most terrifying moment ever.
Wendy: That was TENSE. And the aftermath, when you can’t see who didn’t make it out? So terrible. And of course the worst possible scenario probably happened. *mourns the handsome rat forever*
Kim: Yes, that was very heartwrenching. And um the ever lurking menace of a seven-toed cat?!?!?!? No thank you!
Wendy: 4 stars. Love love love. I think I did try to read the first sequel when I was young, but being disappointed by it. I don’t remember it all, so I’d like to try it again sometime.
Layla: 4 stars! Loved it as a child, loved it now. A nice, wholesome story about rats taking over the world as we know it.
Kim: If Justin lives it’s a 4. Otherwise, 3.5. I have no shame. Altogether, it’s a lovely story and charmingly told. With subtly revealed depth of character and depth of plot. This was a totally different story than I went into expecting! But I loved the ingenuity, and the heart of the characters, and how they were all brought together to help each other.
Wendy: You’re contradicting yourself, Kim! To rate that way, but judge book two on Justin living, hah.
Photograph by Kate Posey from Bookish Illuminations.
March Readalong: The Secret Garden
Spring is a time of rebirth–and it’s the perfect time to fall in love with one of our very favorite books! If you haven’t read this yet, NOW IS THE TIME. We all love this book to pieces and we are determined to get everyone else to love it as well. And obviously if it’s one of your favorites, we hope you’ll join us in hugging it and delighting in its many pleasures.
Title: The Secret Garden
Author: Frances Hodgson Burnett
Discussion Date: Friday, March 27th
Recently arrived at her uncle’s estate, orphaned Mary Lennox is spoiled, sickly, and certain she won’t enjoy living there. Then she discovers the arched doorway into an overgrown garden, shut up since the death of her aunt ten years earlier. Mary soon begins transforming it into a thing of beauty–unaware that she is changing too. But Misselthwaite hides another secret, as Mary discovers one night. High in a dark room, away from the rest of the house, lies her young cousin, Colin, who believes he is an incurable invalid, destined to die young. His tantrums are so frightful, no one can reason with him. If only, Mary hopes, she can get Colin to love the secret garden as much as she does, its magic will work wonders on him.
This title should be easily available in libraries, and it’s also just 99 cents to a few dollars on Amazon depending on the format. And there are so many beautiful editions of this book available, we’d love to see yours! Use hashtag #tmgreadalong to share them on Twitter, or email them to us and we’ll post some on our Facebook wall.
— If you’d like to get a head start on April’s book, we’ll be reading A Ring of Endless Light by Madeleine L’Engle.
What did you think of our brave mice and rats this month? Are you joining us for The Secret Garden?