Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert O’Brien

“The real point is this: we don’t know where to go because we don’t know what we are.  Do you want to go back to living in a sewer pipe and eating other people’s garbage?  Because that’s what rats do.  But the fact is, we aren’t rats anymore.  We’re something Doctor Schultz has made, something new.  Doctor Schultz said our intelligence has increased one thousand percent!  I suspect he’s underestimated.  I think we’re as intelligent as he is, maybe more.”

This one is a classic from my childhood.  I only read it once way back when, shortly after I discovered the movie adapted from it, The Secret of NIMH, but I’ve never forgotten it.  What I didn’t know then was how much of it was based in reality.  The book was inspired by research on rat population dynamics performed from the 1940s-60s at — you guessed it — NIMH: National Institute for Mental Health.  I think that’s part of what captured my attention later, in much the same way Mary Shelley was inspired by science to write Frankenstein.

But this is a children’s book, and science marches on.

Suffice it to say, I see this story in a completely different light today as a grown man than I did when I was a kid.  It’s still a joy to relive the nostalgia, but I grew up with Disney, Don Bluth, and Looney Tunes.  Talking animals wasn’t something I thought was weird at the time.  I mean, seriously.  I took it for granted.  Combine that with all of the superheroes I was exposed to who had gained powers from all manner of weird lab accidents and such, and… well, 8-year-old me wasn’t impressed with the setup.  It was just a good story.

Fast forward to today.  I see how very well-written this story is, and despite it being a lighter fare with kids in mind, it still packs a punch on a number of levels for older minds to digest.  The nostalgia is still there, and that’s fun all by itself, but there’s so much potential now.  It’s a pretty big “what if?” factor, when you consider it.  The concept of rats who have evolved so fast in short order to the point where they actively choose to start a new civilization and actively choose to live a life of peace outside of the interference of humanity… that’s some intense commentary for people to ponder of any age, let alone kids.  The implications make my head reel.  Makes me glad I revisited it after all this time.

3 stars

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