As summer approaches it's almost time for widowed Mrs Frisby and her four children to move from their winter home. But Timothy, the youngest, is recovering from pneumonia and Mrs Frisby fear he's not strong enough for the journey. If they stay, though, the whole family will die - for Mrs Frisby is a field mouse and their home, a half buried cement brick, will be ploughed up once the frost breaks. In desperation she goes to Mr Ages, a white mouse who's been helpful in the past; he directs her to an owl, who refuses to help until he learns that her husband was Jonathon, whereupon he suggests she visit the rats who live under a giant rose bush on the farm grounds.
The rats are escapees from a science experiment run in the mysterious labs of NIMH, a government testing centre where they received a course of medication that boosted their intelligence to human level. Both Mr Ages and Jonathon were part of a simultaneous experiment on lab mice, the only two to survive the escape attempt. The rats have built an amazing home beneath the rose bush, complete with plumbing and furniture, but are preparing to abandon it for a safer home further from people.
I loved this novel and it's two sequels (written by O'Brien's daughter) when I was younger, and was pleased when I stumbled across it recently. The basic premise is intriguing, and the idea of competing biology, including why ape-like creatures rather than-rodent-like creatures became dominant, is interesting. It was therefore bitterly disappointing to discover the blatant anthropomorphisation riddled through the novel, an element that interrupted my suspension of disbelief every time I came across another example.
Some leeway may grudgingly be given for the rats, who are literate, read human books, and spent time in a house during their escape. But Mrs Frisby is an ordinary field mouse - yet somehow she not only brings home breakfast in a bag made of husks, but also has a dining table in her (brick-sized) home, compares a field seen from the air to a postcard, and carries things in her paws while walking. The rats also carry things, write on blackboards and on paper, carpet their hallways, and were somehow able to open a freezer. Their longevity is explained as a side-effect of the lab tests, but Mrs Frisby is inexplicably at least four years old and still spry - the usual life expectancy of a wild mouse is under three years.
As is clear from my review of the classic Watership Down , I have no problem with novels that feature animal protagonists. I do, however, ask that the animals be depicted as behaving like animals and not miniature human beings. The rats might as well have been teeny tiny people as rodents, and though I'll sally forth into the sequel part of me regrets not having left my enjoyment of the first reading stand. - Alex