Monday, October 5, 2009

Reading The Rats of NIMH

Almost every night, my family gathers in the living room and I read to them, like my parents did to me when I was little. The current chapter-book selection is the Newbery winner Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O'Brien published in 1971.

Last night as I was reading, I found this passage which surely must have entered my consciousness as a child, but seemed much more relevant when I read it as an adult:

It was a comfortable, almost luxurious existence.

And yet all was not well. After the first burst of energy...a feeling of discontent settled upon us like some creeping disease.

We were reluctant to admit it at first. We tried to ignore the feeling or to fight it off by building more things--bigger rooms, fancier furniture, carpeted hallways, things we did not really need. I was reminded of a story I had read at the Boniface Estate when I was looking for things written about rats. It was about a woman in a small town who bought a vacuum cleaner...

And here the character of Nicodemus recounts how the other housewives had to buy vacuums, and the power company had to expand and burn more coal, which covered their floors with soot, and subsequently the floors of the town weren't as clean with all the vacuums as if they had stuck to using brooms and mops. And the women didn't end up saving any time.

Then he goes back to telling Mrs. Frisby of their predicament:

...we saw our problems and we figured out, as well as we could, what to do about them. First, we realized that finding the Toy Tinker's truck, which had seemed like such an enormous stroke of luck, had in fact led us into the very trap we should have avoided. As a result we were now stealing more than ever before: not only food, but electricity and water. Even the air we breathed was drawn in by a stolen fan, run by stolen current.

It was this, of course, that made our life so easy that it seemed pointless. We did not have enough work to do because a theif's life is always based on somebody else's work...

All these things we worried about and talked about and puzzled over. But we could not find any easy answer--because there was none.

There was, however, a hard answer.

All of this leads to an argument with another rat named Jenner who claims, when Nicodemus expresses interest in living a life not based on stealing,

"..We've already got a civilization."

"No. We haven't. We're just living on the edge of somebody else's, like fleas on a dog's back. If the dog drowns, the fleas drown, too.

All of this made me reflect on our current society and economic structure. Who am I stealing from that only facilitates me stealing more?

Are we the dog drowning the fleas? or are we fleas on our own financial system or healthcare system?

I try to pat myself on the back that I only buy fair trade coffee now. But we don't own a fuel- efficient car. And I eat a lot of highly processed food and then I spend my time running it off instead of using my calories weeding the garden in which I (should) grow my own, healthier food. (duh!)

It's the hard answers we don't like. Nicodemus (O'Brien) hit that nail on the head.

Further, this is why we need to read to our children. Even when they're old enough to read chapter books to themselves. If we are going to teach ethical and contemplative behavior to our children, what better way to facilitate those kinds of family discussions than through literature? Having a common ethical dilemma to discuss that does not involve the child or parent personally-- has nothing to do with "punishments" -- makes it easy to discuss ideas and check in with your child's moral development.

How else to teach children to choose the hard answer instead of the easy one? And to remind us as parents that sometimes we have to choose the hard answers too. Especially when it comes to parenting.

1 comment:

Stephanie Stark Poling said...

Hey Britt - Can I come over to story time? Sounds like fun! I remember that book vaguely and I think that's a fascinating passage you mentioned. I would like to hear the discussion between you, Chad and the kids!!