Saturday, March 15, 2008

Robert C. O'Brien

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH
by Robert C. O'Brien
Recommended Age: 8+

This book was the basis for the MGM/UA animated movie The Secret of NIMH. It (the book, not the movie) won the Newbery Medal in 1972. The main character is Mrs. Frisby, a widowed field mouse who, with her two sons and two daughters, lives under a tree in a meadow in the summer, and inside a cinder block in a farmer's field in the winter. As the story opens, the time for moving out of their winter house approaches (when the frost breaks up, the farmer will plow his field, so their home will be destroyed). But Mrs. Frisby has a problem. Her younger son, Timothy, a frail but very intelligent and kind little mouse, comes down with pneumonia and while he is recovering (thanks to medicines made by an old white mouse named Mr. Ages) he cannot be moved. He has to stay in bed, and he can't survive even a breath of cold or damp air, the likes of which he is sure to run into if they move to their summer house now. Mrs. Frisby is desperate to figure out a solution to her dilemma: for as it stands, they can either move, and Timothy will die; or they can stay put, and all die together.

Thanks in part to a favor she does for a young crow named Jeremy, and in part to the memory of her late husband who had connections she didn't even dream of, and again in part to the advice of an owl, Mrs. Frisbee turns to a neighboring colony of rats for help. The rats have always kept to themselves, but she soon finds out that these are no ordinary rats. They are super-intelligent rats, escaped from a laboratory, able to read and write and to use machines and electrical appliances.

Mrs. Frisby learns that her husband and Mr. Ages escaped from the same laboratory, and that they are planning to move away from the farm (where they have lived by stealing everything from food to electricity) to an isolated valley where they can begin an advanced rat society in which they will raise their own food and build their own civilization. They help her and she helps them in a dramatic and suspenseful adventure which, toward the end, is tinged with a bit of sadness and just enough uncertainty as to how certain things turned out, that you almost wish a sequel had been written (if you know of one, let me know!).

I thank all of you who wrote to me to tell me about Racso and the Rats of NIMH and R-T, Margaret, and the Rats of NIMH, which were written by a different author named Jane Leslie Conly.

The Silver Crown
by Robert C. O'Brien
Recommended Age: 10+

The award-winning author of Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH wrote a book in the 1960s that is kind of a cross between a medieval fantasy and a Gothic horror novel, only it's set in the Eastern U.S. in the 1960s, and the race riots and social unrest of that era are an element in the horror. Frightening as it is, I remember my fourth-grade teacher reading it to my class, and it still chills me to the quick at the age of 30. [EDIT: That was a few years ago.]

It's a pretty gripping story. Ellen Carroll, the middle child of three in an unnamed Virginia city, mysteriously receives a silver crown on her birthday which confirms what she has always thought - that she is, somehow, a queen. But while she is sitting in the park fantasizing about her castle and her kingdom, her house burns down and her family is apparently wiped out.

With only a couple of dollars and an Aunt in Kentucky to rely on, she sets off on her own and soon realizes that very dangerous people are chasing her. She gets help from an older lady, a slightly wild boy named Otto, a talking crow named Richard, and a lonely widower who carves wood for a living. But gradually she is drawn into the trap of an evil cult, a magical mind-control machine, a King who wears a black crown, and a castle containing a school that brainwashes children and turns them into terrorists. Ellen and her silver crown appear to be the only thing standing in the way of the Hieronymous Machine and its plan to enslave the whole world.

The edition that I have includes two different endings for the book, one of which was written for the British edition, the other for the American edition. The only difference really, besides the length of the last chapter, is how the silver crown appearing on Ellen's pillow is explained. I like the shorter, British ending better. Nevertheless, I think the last few chapters seemed a bit rushed. I sensed that O'Brien was either getting sick of writing this story, or excited about the ending he had come up with, or possibly he had written himself into a corner, but one way or the other, the resolution of the story seemed kind of abrupt and perfunctory, in proportion to the pacing of the rest of the novel. It almost seemed too easy. Maybe. You tell me, if you get a chance to read it!

1 comment:

alai said...

I adored The Silver Crown as a young girl, but I could never find it anywhere but my primary school's library. I recall searching everywhere I could think of -- the municipal public library, the parish library system of the next parish over, every area bookshop -- but never being able to find it. There was a limit as to how many weeks in a row we could keep a book out, so I would alternate weeks, checking it out every few weeks from the time I was eight or so until I was twelve.

I remember being extremely disappointed with the latter part of the book, for what I realize now is its pace. I'm assuming that we had the U.S. edition (though now that I'm in HK, perhaps I shall see if I can find the UK version and see if it's as I recall).

I of course loved the Rats of NIMH series, which was easier to find (I kept my old copies until recently, when I donated them to families less fortunate than us in Katrina), but I must note that Jane Leslie Conly is the daughter of Robert C(only) O'Brien. :)