Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Abandoned Places: North Brother Island and NIMH (a book review)

North Brother Island, situated in New York's East River, was unpopulated until 1885 when Riverside hospital, a smallpox hospital, was relocated there. Eventually, the hospital came to specialize in quarantinable diseases. Because of this, in 1907, Typhoid Mary was brought to the island. She stayed there until 1910 when she finally agreed to take safety precautions to prevent the spread of the typhoid bacteria she was carrying. Upon release, however, she quickly resumed her life as a cook and continued to spread typhoid fever, changing her name as she moved around each time people became infected because of her. As many as 50 deaths may be attributed to Mary. She was finally recaptured in 1915 and returned to North Brother Island where she lived for the remainder of her life, more than 20 years. Shortly after her death in 1938, the hospital was closed.

During the 1950s, a facility for the treatment of drug addicts was built on the island, but it failed to be successful and closed only a decade later.

The island is now closed to the public and is a bird sanctuary. Until 2008, the island was home to one of the largest colonies of Black-crowned Night Herons, but they have inexplicably also abandoned the island.

North Brother Island was also the home to New York's worst disaster in terms of life loss prior to the 9-11 when, in 1904, a passenger steamboat, the General Slocum, crashed and burned causing the deaths of over 1000 people.
Image by Jonathan Haeber and used under the linked license.
Note: The island contained more than just the hospital. It is the entire island that has been abandoned.
I think these photo credits are to Richard Nickel, Jr., but I was unable to verify that.

I wanted to also include Nara Dreamland, Japan's first amusement park. It was modeled after Disneyland and built in 1961. By the time it closed in 2006, it was virtually already abandoned due to lack of visitors. At any rate, I couldn't find pictures that I could verify were available for use, so here's a link instead.

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH
Robert O'Brien

For being someone who doesn't frequently re-read, I've been doing a lot of that lately. But this one isn't my fault. Well, not exactly.

To say that my daughter is difficult is an understatement at best. She's a great kid, but she's a constant challenge. She likes to be busy. She's always planning ahead. And she rejects any and all book recommendations out of hand even though all of the books she loves (like Harry Potter) were suggested by my wife or me. I have to suggest a book many, many times before she's willing to give it a try. One of the things I've done to entice her is to suggest books that I read when I was her age and that I liked. One of the most successful of those suggestions was Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.

I first read about the rats when I was about 10, and I remember really falling in love with the idea of a secret lab that made rats as smart as people. In fact, a bunch of us in my class all read the book around the same time, and I remember that there were many conversations centered around  those rats. I don't, now, remember any of those conversations, but I remember having them.

So, without telling her what the book is about, I told her how much I had liked the book when I was her age and suggested she read it, which she did. And she loved it. As soon as she finished reading it, she wanted to talk to me about the book, and I think she probably wanted to have those same kinds of conversations with me that I had with my friends when I was a kid. But that was 30-odd years ago, and I just couldn't remember enough about it to have a satisfying conversation with her. So she asked me to read it again. That was about a year ago, but I did finally manage to do it.

Before I go on, I do want to say that I think this a great book for kids in the 10-ish age range. And not a disenjoyable read for an adult, which may come off as more harsh than I mean it to sound, because I still did like the book. There's just a few things I didn't like about the book, too. They're things I don't like about it as an adult, though, not things that a middle schooler would be bothered by.

That said, the biggest issue I have with the book is that Mrs. Frisby, ostensibly the protagonist, is nearly superfluous. If the goal in writing a book is to create empathy for the main character, then O'Brien failed. Not that you don't care about Frisby, it's just that who you really care about are the rats. It's like O'Brien had this story about the rats but decided that either it was too long for a "kids' book" or too mature. Maybe both. So he took that story and inserted it into the Frisby bookends and just gave us the rats' story as background. The Mrs. Frisby bit isn't long enough to be a book and the rats' stuff is too long, so I wasn't really satisfied with either story. Not to mention how he leaves the story of the rats hanging at the end, because the story about Frisby was over, and he had no good way to continue on with the rats.

Also, in light of the rest of the book, Frisby is not a believable character for me. She is supposed to be a normal mouse, but he presents her, basically, at near the same level as the rats, who are supposed to be much smarter, possibly smarter than humans, so, basically, Frisby is just too smart for the world he has presented to us. And while I get that he needed her to be the way she was since we're seeing the story through her eyes, it doesn't really make sense within the confines of the story.

The other thing I found annoying was Frisby's convenient capture by Billy so that she could find out all the information that the rats needed. I mean, have you ever tried to catch a mouse? It's not like you can just sneak up on them.

Those things aside, though, it was still an enjoyable (and quick) read and, as I said, a great book for the 4-6th grade age range. Now, I just have to wait for my daughter to finish re-reading it (because the day after I started it, she was assigned the book in class!) so that we can finally have that talk about the Rats of NIMH and how cool they are. And, really, they are cool.


  1. It's great to re-read something many years later and discover that it has the same (or close to the same) power that it once did.

    I had a friend who did nest counts on North Brother Island for several years. I never got there myself, but did do counts on nearby Huckleberry Island a couple of times. If you're ever on one of those islands during nesting season--wear a hat!

  2. What a shame to abandon an entire island. I wonder who owns it?

  3. It is a shame. All those derelict buildings should be cleared away and let nature repair the damage.

    Saw the movie Secret of NIMH many years ago.

  4. I haven't read Nimh in what feels like a hundred years! Wow. Forgot all about it until I saw the title.

    Typhoid Mary was (maybe still is) a great campfire story on Long Island.

  5. What a life burden -- to know you're the source that's infecting and killing other people -- and yet the woman kept on cooking for others. Wow.

  6. That looks like a good place to go ghost hunting. Even the mention of that NIMH movie will freak my sister out.

  7. That was one of my favorite books as a kid. Really captured my imagination too.

    And I just saw a story a few days ago about that NY island and Typhoid Mary. Actually, when I read that story I remember thinking that is already heard of it after seeing it on Life After People - not sure that's the name if the show. Bit I think it is.

  8. The hospital looks like the setting of almost every horror movie in the last 10 years. Creepy.

    As for why your daughter doesn't like suggestions, I can understand: As soon as someone suggests reading something, it can become more like a chore. The things we pick our for ourselves are pure choice and are therefore more enjoyable. The things we are assigned to do are work, and are the least enjoyable. Even when work is fun, it's still WORK.

    In between that are the "hey you've gotta [read/see/listen to/taste] this." I know from my own experience that hearing that makes me almost involuntarily say "NO WAY." And it works on Sweetie and the kids, too -- especially if their mood doesn't happen to overlap my own. So you've got to be careful. What I do is tell Sweetie "there's something I want you to read, let me know when you want to," or something like that. Or I'll leave a video on the computer and tell her to look at it when she gets a chance, or send her a link to a book she might like.

    So maybe if you want your daughter to read those books, check them out of the library (that way you don't spend any money) and have them laying around the house.

  9. An island is an excellent location to have an abandoned facility and an eerie one. Can't believe this Mary lady kept going back to a job where she knew she was spreading disease. Or was she ignorant or mentally deficient or something?

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  10. That looks like a fun place to explore (with a hard hat at least). I too enjoyed NIMH, and while some aren't fans of the movie, I'm glad it introduced the idea that dark themes can exist in "kids movies" and still be successful. :)

  11. JeffO: I think, maybe, a trash bag.

    Alex C: The state of New York? I'm not sure.

    Jo: Well, I think nature will take care of that without man getting involved.

    Secret of NIMH was a horrible movie. You can ask my daughter.

    Elsie: Interesting. That she would be a kind of bogey man hadn't occurred to me.

    L.G.: She refused to admit it. She maintained for her whole life, I believe, that it wasn't her.

    Pat: Is she scared of owls, too?

    Rusty: One of the NPR shows did a thing trying to track down the cabin in which she lived. I don't remember which one.

    Briane: Well, she's required to read so, in that sense, it is work. It's part of their homework from their school but, even if it wasn't, we would require it, because we do require it. The boys do it voluntarily; she's the only one that has to be... nudged, from time to time.

    Lee: She was in denial. Probably willful denial.

    David: Oh, the movie was horrible. After my daughter read the book, she really wanted to see the movie, so I rented it for her. She was very upset by how bad and completely unfaithful to the book it was.

  12. That's a beautiful island. Too bad it's been abandoned, and kind of weird that the birds left too.

    It's wonderful that you're encouraging your daughter to read a lot. My father did the same and I'm sure it made my reading/comprehension level higher for school.

  13. I don't think I've ever read Mrs. Frisby but I think it was read to me. It sounds like a great book to share with your daughter, even if it wasn't such a great adult read.

  14. Lexa: Teaching kids to read is about more than teaching them how to read, and we believe in teaching our kids to read. The boys were much easier than the girl, though. But, then, she's all into sports, and the boys could care less about that.

    TAS: It was. She loves that book.

  15. Here for the A-to-Z Challenge! FOLLOW MY BLOG.

  16. North Brother Island does look pretty creepy, but I love the picture of the spiral staircase. It's sad that a whole island and amusement park has been abandoned.

  17. Jeanne: What? No way!

    Chrys: I'd really like to visit the island.

  18. Those images are so powerful and moving--that island looks like something fresh off of a movie set!

  19. randi: Now, I think someone should make a movie set there with some sort of Typhoid Mary reincarnation.

  20. This was one of my fave movies as a kid. And I have an old hardback copy of Mrs. Frisby still in my bookshelf. I was always surprised how different the book was from the movie.

    Granted, my last read wasn't critical, but I get what you are saying about the two stories being disjointed.

    As for reluctant readers, I find my kids still like the books I treasured as a kid. And if you can get your daughter to find a series she likes, it may ignite her interest. I have boys, so my boys really liked Artemis Fowl, the Warriors Series, Guardians of Gahoole...so many...

    The Warriors are about fighting clans of cats in suburban America--I've known girls to like them.

    I think we were channelling the same spirit guide this month--my review is of Beverly Cleary's THE MOUSE AND THE MOTORCYCLE...which I just finished reading with my 5 y/o.

  21. That abandoned island looks amazing, intriguing. I'd love to poke around that place.

    I adored Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH when I was a kid, both the book and (sorry!) the movie. Thanks for the opportunity to revisit that story. I can see why, from an adult POV, those elements wouldn't work.

  22. Last summer someone recommended the Rats of NIMH to my daughter but she wasn't very interested at the time (she seems to be a little like your daughter) but after such a high recommendation I'll make sure to get it for her.

    Loved the pictures of the island, especially those staircases. What an inspiring setting! I can't believe someone hasn't written a novel about all the stuff that happened there. (Or is there such a novel?) Typhoid Mary seems like she could be a great character (a rebel, perhaps.) Her story was very interesting--thanks for sharing!

  23. Stuart: I'm not sure which post you're responding to since I've had amusement park photos in more than one post.

    Veronica: My kids do like a lot of what I read. When I can get them to read it. Actually, with the boys, it's not hard at all.
    (I tried Artemis Fowl three separate times and couldn't get past chapter two. I don't know why.)

    Stephanie: I felt so bad after I let my daughter watch the movie. She was so disappointed. (I have a post about that experience around here somewhere.)

    Lorena: I'm pretty sure there are books about Typhoid Mary, though I haven't actually gone looking for any. I don't know of anything about the island, though.

  24. I actually didn't know that the movie "Nimh" had a book accompanying it. The more you know, I guess!

    That island is pretty awesome... I'd love to visit there, but I'm betting its illegal to do so. (I know Dreamland in Nara is prohibited.)

  25. Alex H: The island is off limits, but you can get special permission to go on.