Now, I know you all saw the movie The Secret of the NIMH at least one of the times it played on replay on Saturday afternoons in the 90s.
But I bet not all of you read the book Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH that the movie was based on. Being the diligent little book nerdette that I was, I both saw the movie and read this book in the third grade. I remember thinking that this book was sad. Other than that, I haven't given this tale about a widowed mouse trying to save her kids with the help of some rats much thought until I read it again this week. And oh my god was this book good!!! Seriously, it was riveting. I read it straight through--all 223 pages--in one sitting. Granted, I was on a four hour flight trapped by my sleeping seatmates in my window seat, but I couldn't even stop reading when Step Up Revolution started playing on the little screen above me. And God knows I love a good break into random group dance movie.
Just like in Stuart Little, Ralph S. Mouse, The Mouse and the Motorcycle, Abel's Island, Ben and Me, and the more recent, The Tale of Desperaux, Mrs. Frisby and the Secret of the NIMH features a mouse protagonist, Mrs. Frisby. I'm not sure when it was or who decided that the rodent that most inspires murderous behavior in humans would also make a sweet and beloved archetypal character, but this little rodent is very pervasive in tween lit. Mrs. Frisby, in addition to being a field mouse (note she is called Mrs. Brisby in the movie version to avoid any trademark issues with Frisbee--fun fact brought to you by Wikipedia), is a great mom. She is the mom to four little mice, including the sickly little Timothy. The Frisbys have a winter home and summer home (how luxurious). The winter home is located in a warm little concrete block that is in a field outside of a farm. Every year, the Frisbys relocate to the mouse Hamptons before the farmer comes out to plow the fields to avoid themselves getting plowed over. This year, there is a problem--Timothy becomes terribly sick and he is too weak to venture outside and would surely not survive the journey to the summer estate by the stream, but the family will surely get killed by the plow if they stay. Quite a predicament. Mrs. Frisby, being a widow and a resourceful she-mouse turns to animal friends to figure out what to do.
I like the first half of this book because it reminded me of books like Alice in Wonderland and The Chronicles of Narnia in that Mrs. Frisby encounters great, epic characters as she tries to resolve her problem. First, Mrs. Frisby travels across the farm to meet her dead husband's old friend, Mr. Ages, an old mouse who also moonlights as the local shaman/pharmacist who provides Mrs. F with the meds to heal Timothy. Next, Mrs. F meets a crow named Jeremy, whom she kindly saves from getting eaten by the wretched farm cat, Dragon. Being a thankful (albeit bird-brained, heh heh) crow, Jeremy later serves as Mrs. Frisby's personal jet. It is this crow who takes her to see the famous wise owl, who Mrs. F is terrified of because owls are known mouse-eaters, but she is desperate. Once the owl finds out that her husband was Jonathan Frisby (which surprises Mrs. F), he tells her what to do -- go and see the rats. He tells her nothing more, and Mrs. Frisby is reluctant to go--rats and mice may be a part of the same genus, but they don't really mingle well. But Mrs. F, again fueled by desperation, goes alone to the rose bush where the rats are known to have a burrow.
At this point, the story switches over from this Alice in Wonderland-character encounter type story to the story of the rats which is totally different. And awesome. For whatever reason, I had no significant memory of the rat-based plot line. Maybe it was my inner mama that just made me remember the parts about ailing children and motherly panic and plight, but this rat plot line is really the heart of the story. At first, the rats disregard Mrs. F, but then they find out that she is the wife of the late Mr. Frisby, and accept her without question. Which is another hint to Mrs. F that Mr. F may have had this secret life--but not the Anthony Weiner or Jim McGreevey kind--a good secret life. Mrs. Frisby meets the rat leader and her husband's former friend, Nicodemus. She sees the inside of the rat lair and it is incredible--there is running water, electricity, elevators, storage rooms, carpeted floors, even an elaborate library filled with books and plush seating.
It turns out these rats are no ordinary rats. Old Nicodemus starts telling Mrs. Frisby their story--which takes several chapters. At first, the rats of NIMH were regular old rats who terrorized a farmer's market at night. But then twenty of these rats were captured and brought to the scientific laboratory called NIMH. These rats were imprisoned at NIMH for over three years where they were subject to injections and scientific trials and experiments. Which if you think about in human terms, that kind of thing is the subject of some seriously horrifying horror movies (which I only know from watching movie trailers--all I can handle). This part of the story made me kind of squeamish. The scientists of NIMH inject the rats with a smart juice and test their intelligence by making them identify shapes and colors and having them run through mazes. The rats eventually get so smart that they learn to read--which is the key to their future (a nice allegory). Led by Nicodemus (who clearly goes on to become Splinter of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), the rats eventually escape--along with two mice also subject to similar but weaker injections at the lab--Mr. Ages and Mr. Frisby! The rats and the two mice find their way to this farm where they build their amazing compound. The rats have great respect for Mr. Frisby because he served as a loyal aid when they needed a rodent small enough to drug Dragon the farm cat when they had to steal things like Christmas lights and metal pipes. The rats of NIMH are super smart--apparently smarter than humans, only limited by their stature and body construction. The secret of the NIMH is that they have a two year plan in place to become a self-sustaining society. At the time they meet Mrs. Frisby, the rats are just about ready to relocate to a secret valley where they can plant their own crops, make their own community, prosper and eventually take over the world. Which is ultimately a very horrifying thought, but the rats of NIMH were really quite charming and polite so I looked past it.
The rats do help Mrs. Frisby--they move her concrete block home to a place that is not subject to the destruction of the plow, so Timothy can wait out his illness before they make their summer move. Mrs. Frisby also helps the rats when she take over as the Dragon-drugger. Although she briefly gets caught, she overhears the human family of the farm talk about how the NIMH laboratory has gotten a hint that their mutant rats were at the farm and they were coming after them. This hint proves important because the rats--all but two--are able to leave the rose bush and move on to the valley before NIMH got a hold of them. The story ends with Mrs. Frisby safely leading her family to their home in an oak tree by the stream. She tells her children the story of their father and the rats--since they are spawn of the genetically-altered Mr. Frisby and will likely find themselves different from other mice--she thought they deserved to know. They go to bed wondering if they will ever see the rats of NIMH ever again.
Good story, right?! The second best rat P.R. stunt after Ratatouille. It has everything--a story of a mother desperate to save her children, a story about the coming together of a community of animals and also a wild tale about ultra-smart friendly mutant rats and their potential world domination. It's both boy and girl-friendly--my boyfriend Mike was not a huge reader as a kid and this was his favorite book. I highly recommend this for an adult read!