Book Review: Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH

Rating: ★★★★★

This is a masterfully crafted science-fiction fantasy about a widowed mouse and her young family, who live on the edge of hunger at the Fitzgibbon farm.  They choose for their winter home a cinder block buried in the farmer’s field, where they can the leavings of the harvest.  When her son Timothy becomes ill, Mrs. Frisby must choose between risking his life by exposing him to the cold in a move to their summer home, or risking the entire family by being at home on plowing day.  In desperation, she visits the owl in the woods for counsel, and he tells her to visit the rats who live on the farm.  When she does this, she discovers that an advanced rat society exists under cover of the rosebush.  The rats have escaped from a place called NIMH (the National Institute for Mental Health) and are planning to end their parasitic existence on the farm, where they use the Fitzgibbons’ electricity and other resources.  Their plans are disrupted by the coming of representatives from NIMH, who have been trying to recapture them since their escape.

The premise of the story is interesting in itself, but it is the character development and skillful unfolding of a suspenseful plot that make this story so wonderful.  The mouse family’s situation is truly desperate,and the reader awaits poor Timothy’s fate with nearly the amount of suspense as the entire rat colony’s.  Mrs. Frisby’s courageous resolve to save Timothy, facing down the owl in his own home and undergoing other dangerous ventures, models the kind of character that we want our children to aspire to.

She is additionally generous, kind and loyal; on discovering a crow trapped near the ground by foolishly attempting to pick up some shiny twine, she coolly risks her life to free him as the cat stalks nearer because “she could not leave the foolish crow there to be killed… just for want of a few minutes’ work.”  In gratitude, the crow plays a key part in helping her save Timothy.

It is difficult to portray rats and mice (even literate ones) in an admirable light, but O’Brien manages to build such sympathy for their society that the death of two rats is felt sharply by the reader.  In particular, the heroism of one rat in helping others to safety as poison gas fills the den leaves a mark of bittersweet admiration that is not quickly forgotten.  In the end, the remaining colony follows through on their plans to develop an independent society in the wilderness, abandoning their well-earned reputation as verminous thieves.  This change does not come as a result of mental enhancement or education, but is a moral choice to value dignity and honor over luxury gained at others’ expense.

A great science fiction premise, convincingly anthropomorphized animals, several heroic characters, a strong tenor of loyalty, friendship and family, all combine under the pen of a skillful writer to make an unforgettable story.

Like many great books, this one was followed by two deeply disappointing and forgettable sequels by Jane Leslie Conly, O’Brien’s daughter: R-T, Margaret, and the Rats of NIMH and Racso and the Rats of NIMH.  I do not recommend wasting time on these, but the original title should not be missed.

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Publication Information: O'Brien, Robert. Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. Bernstein, Zena (Illustrator). . 1971. ISBN: 0689710682.
Categories: 5 Stars, Age 08-12, Book Tree, Books Children Love, Books That Build Character,, NEH Summertime Favorites, Newbery Honor, Read-Aloud Handbook
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Posted on June 24, 2009

1 Response to Book Review: Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH

  • Mindy says:


    This made it onto my notecard at Ruth Ellen’s last night. She was raving about this one and was talking about how bad the movie was and how wonderful the book is.

    It will be one of the first ones I get…especially now that I see it here with 5 stars!


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