The Completist: Robert C. O’Brien, Part 2


Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH is, as you know, probably my favorite children’s book of all time. I can’t even begin to count the number of times I have read it, read it aloud, and listened to it. And every time, it gets me. I get incredibly caught up in the dual stories–the story of Mrs. Frisby and her children and their need to have their home saved from destruction by the plow, and the story of the rats, their captivity in NIMH, their escape, and their plans for the future.Frisby

I am not, as a rule, a big fan of “talking animal” books, but this one is an exception. And I think it is an exception because O’Brien makes it as realistic as he possibly can. In contrast to the movie made from the book, and also to the book’s sequels, which were written by O’Brien’s daughter, O’Brien’s rats, mice, and birds do not wear clothes or look in any way different from ordinary animals. You just have to have this one suspension of disbelief: that the rats were given injections of some substance that made them super-intelligent and super-long-lived. That one fact leads to everything else that happens in the book.

In his Newbery acceptance speech, O’Brien said, “I had been, and still am, concerned over the seeming tendency of the human race to exterminate itself–as who is not? I have wondered: If we should vanish from the earth, who might survive us?  . . .

“Still thinking about survival, I began to speculate: Rats are tough, highly adaptable to a changing environment, and enormously prolific. Maybe if people should eliminate one another by means of war or pollution, rats would be the survivors. Or is not the only survivors, perhaps the most intelligent.

“What, then, would a rat civilization be like? This, of course, is not precisely what Mrs. Frisby is about. In the book, there is no war, and the human race has not been exterminated. but it was this kind of speculation that led to the birth of Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.”

So, again, as in The Silver Crown, we have O’Brien’s general pessimism about the future of humankind, and its “tendency to exterminate itself” (a not uncommon view in the Cold War years in which O’Brien was writing). But again, as well, he clearly thought that there were strong, capable, resourceful people out there, who would figure out a way to survive–although in this case, it’s rats, not people.

Also, as in The Silver Crown, there’s a skepticism about science, or at least about the way that people use science. He doesn’t come right out and say it, but an underlying idea is that if Dr. Schultz of NIMH is working on creating this substance that makes rats smarter and longer-lived, what is its ultimate goal? Presumably to make human beings smarter and longer-lived. And what are the ramifications of that? And why is Dr. Schultz so eager to find the escaped rats or to exterminate them?

There are no evil characters in Mrs. Frisby. Of course, Dr. Schultz and his assistants keep the rats captive, but in their minds, that is justified in the interest of science. Of course, the Fitzgibbons want to exterminate the rats, but that is only natural, as they see them as rodents and pests who are scavenging crops. Even Jenner, who leaves the rat colony, is not a bad guy; he simply has a different idea of how rat society should operate, so he takes some followers and leaves.

So O’Brien takes this germ of an idea about what a rat civilization might be like and manages to create an entire world of wonderful characters and thrilling adventure, leaving the reader with an joyful sense of hope and satisfaction.

O’Brien’s one adult book, A Report from Group 17, on the other hand, gives in a bit more to the pessimism. In this book, a former Nazi scientist is holed up in an estate in Virginia that is owned by a group of Russians. He is ostensibly working with a group of animals in a kind of zoo, but in fact he is  working on a biological weapon that can be released into the Potomac River, where the water filtration system for Washington, D.C. is. Group17

The scientist, incidentally, is called Dr. Schutz (similar to Dr. Schultz of Mrs. Frisby) and his assistant is called Georg (the lab assistants in Mrs. Frisby were George and Julie).

Schutz’s particular variety of biological warfare is a bacterium that renders those who consume it completely docile. They will not do anything unless specifically instructed, and then they will do exactly what they are told. (Shades here of The Silver Crown and the Hieronymus machine.)

All of this is revealed gradually to the reader. In the beginning of the book, a thirteen-year-old girl named Allie who lives near the Russian compound has climbed a tree to look at the animals in the “zoo.” She watches a large ape get sicker and sicker and eventually die. Unfortunately, Allie manages to draw attention to herself, and is taken prisoner by Dr. Schutz, who has decided he needs a human test subject.

The main protagonist of the book is an American scientist named Fergus O’Neil, who is hired by an unnamed US Intelligence organization to find out what is going on at the Russian compound, and specifically what Schutz is doing with the water supply. O’Neil is drawn into the mystery of Allie’s disappearance, and correctly concludes that Schutz is using her as a subject.

Unlike the other books, there is a clear bad guy here–Dr. Schutz is out only for himself, and he knows very well what he is doing. He is working not only for the Russians, but still has contacts within Germany. He is intent on developing a substance that will give him–or his benefactors–complete control over large numbers of people.

In the end, Fergus rescues Allie, but not before she has consumed an appreciable amount of the substance. There is a hopeful statement that “we’re going to make you well again,” but there are no guarantees. Even more depressingly, Schutz manages to make his escape back to Germany, and we are specifically told that he is continuing his biochemical research.

So, again, we have O’Brien’s pessimism about science and about the uses it can be put to, but we also have a strong, resourceful character in Fergus O’Neil–who, interestingly, is also a scientist, but one who uses his science for good. The partially hopeful/partially depressing ending is actually quite typical of books and movies of the early 70s, and I wonder if it’s part of that whole Cold War ethos.

Group 17 is not a great book. It has some pacing issues, and there’s not really quite enough of a plot to support a whole novel. Given the way O’Brien managed to ratchet up the suspense and excitement in Mrs. Frisby, which was written right before Group 17, it’s unfortunate that this one isn’t more of a real thriller. There’s a bit too much talking and exposition and not enough action.

Still, it easily fits into O’Brien’s ouevre. He clearly was struggling with questions about who we humans really are, and how far we will go to control other humans. He must have thought a lot about science and scientists, and about the moral and ethical implications of what we do with it.

Tomorrow I’ll talk about O’Brien’s posthumous book, Z for Zachariah, in which O’Brien gets right down to it and tackles the question of what happens when we destroy our own civilization!

– Mom


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