The Completist: Robert C. O’Brien, Part 1


I’ve never done a Completist post before, but I just recently re-read all four of Robert C. O’Brien’s novels, and decided I would try my hand at this.

O’Brien is primarily–and deservedly–known for his Newbery Award-winning middle grade novel, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (1971).  His next most well-known book is the YA novel, Z for Zachariah (1975), a BBYA selection that was published posthumously. He did, however, write two other novels, a middle-grade called The Silver Crown (1968) and an adult novel entitled A Report from Group 17 (1972), which was also a BBYA pick. The three children’s/YA books are still in print, but Group 17 is long out of print, and even vanishing from libraries (so I was quite clever to have bought a copy many years ago).

All four novels are on the surface very different, but they have some common themes and threads that really stood out to me when I recently re-read them all.

First, just a bit about O’Brien. His real name was Robert Leslie Conly. He studied both music and literature, and beginning in the 1940s, he worked as a journalist. In 1951, he began working as a writer and then an editor for National Geographic magazine, and he worked there until his death of a heart attack in 1973, at the age of 55.  He wrote his fiction under the pseudonym of Robert C. O’Brien (his mother’s maiden name) because apparently the National Geographic frowned on outside writing by its staff. He didn’t attend the Newbery banquet in person, but had his editor read his Newbery acceptance speech (although in the speech, he blames his doctor for his absence, not his employer, so I guess we need to take him at his word).

All four of O’Brien’s novels are compellingly-written adventure stories. All of them have a situation in which a young person (or rat!) is in peril and all of them deal with issues around science (or at least the way people use science), with questions of authority, and with the human tendency toward destruction. They all deal in one way or another with a character in captivity. In fact, at first glance, it seems that he was a rather pessimistic fellow, but all of the books have a hopeful light as well. I think this attitude is best summed up by saying that O’Brien didn’t have a very high opinion of society as a whole, but he had a great deal of faith in individuals.

So, the books, in chronological order:SilverCrown

The Silver Crown is a sort of science fiction/fantasy novel that reminds me a lot of William Sleator’s books, or even of Madeleine L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time and its sequels. Ellen wakes up on the morning of her tenth birthday to find a silver crown on her pillow. Ellen has always known that she was a queen, and of course she knows it is her birthday, so she is  not surprised to find the crown and to find that it fits her perfectly. She heads out for a walk to the park, where her imaginary castle stands, since the rest of her family is still asleep. She hasn’t been there long, however, before she hears sirens, returns home, and discovers that her house has burned to the ground, and that her family is nowhere to be found.

Ellen–amazingly resourceful for a ten-year-old–first finds a policeman to help her, but he is drawn away by a nearby armed robbery and never returns. Something strange is happening in town, and it involves people wearing green hoods. Eventually Ellen decides that the only thing to do is to find her way to the home of her Aunt Sarah in Kentucky. She is offered a ride, which she accepts, until she discovers that her benefactor is one of the green-hooded people. She escapes from him into the forest, where she is befriended by a boy named Otto, his “mother”, and an artist named Richard who lives in the forest.  Otto comes with Ellen as she attempts to continue her journey to her aunt’s house, but their way is blocked and eventually both Otto and Ellen end up in a dark castle, in which dozens of children are being held captive by the mysterious Hieronymus machine.

The Hieronymus machine is essentially a brainwashing device that uses a shiny black substance called malignite to control the minds and actions of anyone who is near it. Ellen alone appears to be immune to the effects of the malignite. There is a king who wears a crown that is identical to Ellen’s in every way except that it is black, not silver. Ellen figures out that both the black and silver crowns must be destroyed in order to destroy the Hieronymus machine and end its control over the children and others. And this she does. And once she does, it turns out that even her family, whom she had thought dead in the fire, have only been abducted, and she is reunited with them.

One of the really interesting things about the book is that although there are adults who do some really terrible things, they are all under control of the machine, and not actually evil themselves. It isn’t clear exactly how the machine works–is it operating under instructions given to it long ago by some earlier wearer of the silver crown? Or is is beginning to “think” for itself? Ellen concludes that it doesn’t really matter:

“For the machine was evil. She knew it was evil even though it was now, in a sense, hers. It was evil not necessarily in itself–for how could a machine know ‘good’ from ‘bad’?–but because it was dangerous, and it was dangerous because it was too powerful, not matter who wore the crown, no matter who controlled it.”

So already in his first novel, O’Brien was exploring themes that would come up again in his later novels. While the origins of the Hieronymus machine are uncertain, the idea is quite clear: here is this device that can control people’s minds, and can, to some extent, continue operating on its own, self-replicating and extending its control over more and more people. I can’t help thinking that O’Brien was already thinking, in 1968, about computers and about the way that the things we humans make can be used in ways that can hurt us. But he also has characters who are strong and defiant, and who can resist the pull of evil.

The Silver Crown is, in many ways, an odd little book. It’s not exactly a fantasy, and its not exactly science fiction, and it’s definitely not entirely realistic fiction. I think you can see why I thought of Madeleine L’Engle and William Sleator–the Hieronymus machine reminds me of IT and CENTRAL Central Intelligence, and the castle in the forest made me think of House of Stairs. And it has that kind of pessimistic edge to it that I associate with movies of that same late-60s/early-70s era.

But it’s the sort of book that makes a deep impression on the right reader. (As you know, your brother Thomas is one of those.) I was reading comments on Amazon and Goodreads, and it seems that The Silver Crown is one of those books that children read and re-read, and bits of it stick in their minds, and then when they’re adults, they find themselves seeking out the book yet again. It was apparently out of print for some time, but is now back in print; I’d be curious to know how it sells.

I’ll stop there for today, and resume tomorrow with Mrs. Frisby and Group 17.

– Mom



Filed under Books, Children, Teens

2 responses to “The Completist: Robert C. O’Brien, Part 1

  1. Isn’t it funny that Mrs. Frisby was one of my favorite books as a child, yet I had no idea that the author had written other books, and I could never have told you his name? (A peek into the mind of a child reader.)

    I love the “completist” posts, despite how much work they are for you two!

  2. Jonathan Hunt


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