By DAVID A. KING, PH.D., Commentary | Published December 21, 2017
The recovery, or rediscovery, of past pleasure is one of the greatest joys of life.
I believe this truth inspires us each Advent, Christmas and Epiphany; it helps people of faith, especially, concentrate upon the things that matter, even when the secular world constantly tries to intervene and disrupt our focus.
Regular readers of my column for The Georgia Bulletin know that each Christmas I focus my article on a work primarily intended for children, and this year is no exception. The difference is that this year’s piece came as the result of serendipity.
Every year, for as long as I can remember, I have chosen favorite books from my past to re-read. I have learned that the books we read as children—if they are good books—continue to resonate in our adult imagination. They offer not only a happy reminder of our past, but they reveal to us the endurance of great literature. A good book is almost organic; it changes with us over time, so that our experience of revisiting it offers insight and wisdom we might not have grasped initially.
In the United States, our best children’s literature remains those great books awarded the Caldecott and Newberry Awards. The Caldecott is given annually for the most distinguished picture book for children, while the Newberry is awarded each year to the exemplary novel for younger readers. For years, I have shared my Caldecott favorites with my boys, but I am just now beginning to introduce my 10-year-old to the Newberry books.
I have never given up reading the Newberry books, and in fact I have written about some of them in this space; Madeleine L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time” immediately comes to mind. Once every couple of years, I find myself returning with pleasure to a Newberry novel.
So it was that last month, on a particularly gloomy evening, I found myself drawn to a book that had mystified and captivated me nearly 40 years ago. Robert C. O’Brien’s “Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH” is an American masterpiece of literature for children. I had adored it as a child, not only because of the text, but also because of the evocative adaptations made for the American Library Association filmstrip series and the marvelous PBS show “Cover to Cover,” which was hosted by the brilliant John Robbins. To this day, when I revisit a Newberry book, I hear Robbins’ voice in my head.
For some reason, though I have read “Mrs. Frisby” many times, I found myself struck by the realization that the book is a profoundly Catholic work. I do not know why I had never noticed this before, but as I have said, a great book changes with us over time. Perhaps I have reached a point in the development of my own Catholic imagination that I am able to see clearly truths that might have earlier eluded me.
At any rate, I knew the book just had to be by a Catholic writer, but discovering the truth behind my assumption took a bit of work.
Robert C. O’Brien, you see, did not really exist. The name was the pseudonym, or pen name, for Robert Leslie Conly. And Conly was indeed a Catholic, the third of five children from an affluent and educated New York Irish Catholic family.
Conly is typical of so many exceptional children in that on the surface he did not appear to be exceptional. He was often sick. He loathed school. He displayed almost no athletic ability. Yet as he grew older, he blossomed. He became healthy and strong. He developed a charming personality. Most importantly, he discovered a gift for music and for writing. In his college years, he studied at both the Juilliard School of Music and Columbia University before finally earning a B.A. in English at the University of Rochester.
Conly became a journalist, and worked for two of the world’s most distinguished magazines, Newsweek and National Geographic. He did not write fiction until the last years of his life.
Two events led to the writing of “Mrs. Frisby.” For one, the Conly family had spent much of their leisure time on a small farm, and though the animals made him anxious, he often thought of writing about them. Secondly, he became severely afflicted with glaucoma. As so often happens in suffering, the disease gave him a great empathy and sensitivity—especially for children—and he began to write fiction. “Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH” appeared in 1971 under the O’Brien pen name, and much to Conly’s surprise, the book won the Newberry Award.
Conly had to publish under an assumed name because the National Geographic would not allow its staff writers to publish writing in other publications or venues. Even when he died in 1973, few people knew that author O’Brien, now beloved by young readers, was really Conly. Though his wife Sally revealed his secret in 1978, to this day most people do not know O’Brien’s true identity. Yet as Sally reported, Conly chose his secret name as a tribute to his Catholicism and his Irish heritage, which she described as integral to his conception of himself.
The story of “Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH” seems simple. Mrs. Frisby is a widowed field mouse who lives with her children on Mr. Fitzgibbon’s farm. Her youngest son, Timothy, is seriously ill. A wise old mouse who acts a sort of doctor and sage for the animals diagnoses Timothy’s sickness as pneumonia. Though old Mr. Ages can treat the disease, he advises Mrs. Frisby that the child cannot be moved; Timothy must remain immobile and warm for several weeks. The problem is that the field mice have to move house before Mr. Fitzgibbon begins plowing his fields. If they do not leave, they are surely to be killed. Mr. Ages advises Mrs. Frisby to consult the advice of the ancient Owl who lives deep in the woods. After Mrs. Frisby assists a young crow, Jeremy, who has been tangled in some shiny tinsel he discovered, Jeremy repays the favor by flying Mrs. Frisby to the Owl’s house. This scene—the flight into the dark forest to the Owl’s tree—is one of the most spectacular episodes in the book. It is made even better by the climactic encounter with the Owl himself, a scene that is beautifully and eerily rendered. Though the Owl is at first reluctant to help, when he learns that Mrs. Frisby’s husband was Jonathan Frisby, he immediately shifts his demeanor and advises Mrs. Frisby to move her house to leeward. And to accomplish this, he tells her, she must go to see the Rats.
Everyone in the farm and forest knows about the Rats. They are a secretive and mysterious group who live deep under a large rosebush. Most of the animals don’t know anything specific about them, and the few who do—like the Owl—won’t reveal their knowledge. Yet the Owl is adamant: only the Rats can help solve the problem of moving Mrs. Frisby’s house and thereby save Timothy.
Who the Rats are, and how they came to live under the rosebush, drives the rising action of the plot. The Rats have a mysterious past and, it turns out, they have an equally suspenseful future. Their past is related to NIMH, and what NIMH is. As for what happened there, I will not tell you! I will tell you that the incidents at NIMH open for the young reader a profound series of questions. The adult reader understands these provocative dilemmas as ethical and moral challenges; the child faces the important task of developing analytical and critical skills, as well as clarifying matters of conscience.
“Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH” is therefore a book that teaches valuable lessons, yet it also delights. It is a story filled with adventure and suspense, and its characters are wholly believable as creatures who possess both cognitive and emotional abilities. The Rats, especially, are remarkable, and Mrs. Frisby is a strong and admirable heroine. The minor characters in the book are equally memorable, and the vivid illustrations by Zena Bernstein are intricate and beautiful, matched perfectly to the representation the reader conceives in the imagination.
At the heart of the book are two primary conflicts, resolved by two sets of characters each motivated by the need to preserve life. Mrs. Frisby is the parent willing to sacrifice anything to save her child. The Rats employ all their resources to preserve themselves, and yet when they are called upon to help Mrs. Frisby, they put her needs before their own. The reader, whether child or adult, will recognize the allegorical and religious allusions. Moreover, the reader will be moved by the spirit of cooperation, respect, courage and mercy that defines the tone of the novel.
If you finish the book, you will want to see the evocative and interesting animated film adaptation. Though far from perfect, the movie, “The Secret of NIMH,” will also teach younger audiences the differences between literature and cinema, and will surely provoke much discussion and debate. But please: read the book first. It is a terrific tale, well told, and its Catholic sensibilities are a gift not just for Christmas, but for all seasons of the year.
David A. King, Ph.D., is associate professor of English and Film Studies at Kennesaw State University and director of adult education at Holy Spirit Church in Atlanta.