So, in light of everything going on, and inspired by Levar Burton and others doing readings during these difficult times, I thought I would try my hand at recording a reading of Robert C. O’Brien’s A Report from Group 17.
Now, mind you, I’m no great voice actress, but I do hope you’ll enjoy it, AND, if you are so inclined, help me with a quick vote.
This book is not a children’s book, it’s for adults, and I’m not famous…. SO I was thinking of doing audio only. I doubt anyone wants to look at my everyday mug 🙂
Also, I was thinking of releasing in chapters along the way….
NOTE: This book is out of copyright, and I am NOT making any money off of this reading.
Does anyone have any input or ideas? They’d be greatly appreciated!
Arahshiel “I dedicated seven years of my life and a thesis to Robert Conly (Robert C. O’Brien)” Silver
On a fateful day in 2013, a new adventure started for me. I had already been a rat advocate, as well as adoring other rodents, but I took a little course called “Animals and Human Civilization” – taught by the amazing Boria Sax (check out his books!). We had to pick out a book to read in relation to the course and I decided it was finally time to read Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. I had always loved animals and wanted to work on their behalf – ALL ANIMALS, not just the charismatic ones – and I was sort of surprised by what I was learning in my late-life undergraduate studies: It was in to be worried about animal welfare in academia. It sure hadn’t been that was when I graduated high school in 1992. Back then animal advocates were often painted as unbalanced people who didn’t get along much with other humans and who foolishly “anthropomorphized” things like emotions onto non-human animals.
What was I expecting? A light little romp, honestly. What I got was the work of a brilliant man who was worried about all aspects of life. Philoshopher, poet, and a little too well-informed about current events to be blithely optimistic about a human future unchecked by ethics. I can’t even bear to think of what he’d think about today’s world…
Anyway, I keep digressing. Here’s the truth, gang: I have always been concerned about non-human animal abuse and lab testing. I’ve never believed it would be possible to completely eliminate it, and people get REALLY defensive and angry if they even think you’re thinking it, but it used too often, sometimes for frivolous studies, and, on top of all that, the Animal Welfare Act does not consider rats, mice, and birds “animals.” Yep, you read that right – that means they don’t have to consider the suffering of these species. I won’t get into the realities for the sake of the weak at heart, but just trust me on this one. Also, don’t start asking me to compare the values of lives. I just told you I know that I don’t believe it can be eliminated, so that’s my final answer. I won’t die (or be murdered) on that hill.
What’s been interesting, though, is the fact that when I would explain the inspiration for my thesis, people (including my advisor) just assumed it was all about animal testing (which it was not) – a point I was trying to make to anyone who would listen AND here. There was plenty here about Conly’s primary focus – which was human civilization. Conly wasn’t an animals right activist, although he did have a respect for animals. Secret of NIMH removed all the other stuff and then went extreme with the testing angle in a way that would cause any research scientist to automatically assume that Conly’s work was just completely anti-science.
NOW, here I sit, about six months after graduating with my Master’s thesis and I am just going to tell you straight out – YES, I freaking care a lot of about the treatment of rats and rodents. I do want most of it eliminated. Go on – go out there and tell people I’m a bit of an animal activist.
Do me another favor: Tell people about how awesome rats are (or learn about them). Don’t fall for the horror-hype and, also, be prepared for the invasive species stuff. But before you say: “Yes, they are invasive and wipe out other species,” you better realize you-who-is-not-without-sin better not cast the first stone. They survived because they’re adaptable and because we’re bloody filthy. *steps off of soap box, breathing hard*
*ahem* A great place to learn about how cool rats are – or to take your kids to learn about how cool they are – is at the Smithsonian National Zoo in D.C. They have a HUGE area for the rats to run around in and tons of great information about the positive things about rats. I’m not kidding – I almost cried when I saw the display. As you can see, I came dressed for the occasion.
So, yes, Arahshiel Silver cares an awful lot about animals and about reducing animal testing. She cares an awful lot about the suffering of these animals who science is just getting around to “proving” can suffer and have positive affects and emotions.
So yes, you can call me the animal lover. But you should also realize that I also study the facts and don’t promote hyperbole. At this point though, does anyone even pay attention to facts any more? What I do pay attention to is the very real connection I feel with my rats and other non-human animals. Both Caroline Earle White and Robert Leslie Conly had empathy for human animals AND non-human animals. It’s not an either/or proposition.
I just came across this lovely article written about Conly’s Z for Zachariah. Written by Jenny Downham for the Guardian, the article explores how Conly’s Ann Burden became an inspiration for future books. Downham, the author of books for teenage readers, addresses such powerful topics such as coming to terms with death and the struggles of young women to find an identity.
“This book gave me far more than relief from fear of nuclear war. It gave me a life-long belief in the strength of girls and women. The nightmares still came, but when I woke shivering in the dark, I reminded myself of Ann’s bravery and competency and told myself that I was also capable of being such a person.”
I find, unfortunately, sometimes books are declared as anti-woman or anti-feminist because of one or two passages without taking into account the greater picture. For example, in Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, some might take umbrage at the fact that the female rats don’t always attend the mass meetings and are described as attending to things like decoration (like the colored glass in the rats’ colony). However, the tale features a female protagonist, Mrs. Frisby, who takes great risks to help her son, Timothy. Conly’s other children’s book, The Silver Crown, also features a female protagonist who must face great dangers as she tries to reach the home of her aunt. It is she who frees the captured children in the book. It is she who takes the initiative despite the loss of her family and the knowledge that there are dangerous people after her.
In reviewing Conly’s manuscripts and other original documentation, one learns that Conly respects women and consciously tries to make them appear strong. While he does express a concern about not coming across as too “women’s lib,” it is unclear whether or not he is concerned about the movement or more about the possible resistance to the idea from the greater public. It is my opinion that, far too often, some critics are quick to accuse an author of being anti-woman without taking other factors into consideration. Since Conly worked in the newspaper and current events world, he would have to be aware of his audience. Considering his three children’s books all feature female characters, I’m going to go with this theory.
Just thought I would take a moment to discuss Conly’s books and the connections to Jimsonweed AND the article’s mention that the infamous Dr. Mengele was purported to use the plant to induce zombie-like states in people – states that made them subject to obeying the will of those who drugged them.
On a minor scale, Conly refers to Jimsonweed as a dangerous plant located near Mr. Ages’ home in Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, however, on a larger scale, this provides possible clues to Conly’s inspiration for the drug used by Dr. Schutz, the former Nazi scientist who is working to create a bioweapon that will make millions of people, well, zombie-like masses that will follow the people who have created it (I have to hold back some details here in case anyone might decide to pick up the book and would like to enjoy the suspense.) Dr. Mengele is also possibly a reference for another character in the book, Dr. Schutz’s assistant, who is clearly a sadist who enjoys inflicting pain on the child who is held captive in the testing facility. Want more details? Well, that’s all in my thesis. Check out the chapter on A Report from Group 17. The book is no longer in print, but can be found for sale with used booksellers. There’s also a signed first edition of the book, if anyone would like to buy it for me. (Just kidding… maybe)
While his most famous work, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, addressed the ethics of animal testing, genetic engineering, and the dangers of materialism, Robert Conly (Robert C. O’Brien) didn’t limit his concerns to one book. He continued to address anxieties of the time in his three other books – two of them for children and one for adults. It would be difficult to describe them all in depth (even my thesis didn’t allow for the expression of the deep research of them), I will try to give an overview of the three books and the kinds of worries that he conveyed through his fiction.
The Silver Crown: The Silver Crown was Conly’s first published work of fiction. The intended age group was about the same, if not perhaps a little lower, than Mrs. Frisby. The story is a fantasy story, but like so many other fantasy stories, the villains and other obstacles are representative of real world dangers. The primary dangers in The Silver Crown are those posed by mind control, systematization of education, and gun violence. In the novel, the mind control and malignant education is administered by something called the Hieronymus Machine. The dark king who has the machine is himself more a puppet of the machine than a villain with their own agency. The victims are children taken from the streets and other places where they were less likely to be reported missing. They were given numbers instead of names and taught subjects with names such as “Elementary Destruction” or participated in exercises in which they were encouraged to attack police officers. The minions of the dark king murder a man early in the tale, Conly directly describing the shooting and death of the victim.
Z for Zachariah: Z for Zachariah, a book aimed at the young adult audience, quickly identifies itself as a book concerned with nuclear apocalypse, however, the book also addresses other issues. The antagonist is a scientist who has murdered his co-worker for the protective suit that allows him to walk into affected lands. Additionally, the antagonist quickly tries to dominate the female protagonist – a teenage girl who is the sole survivor of her family. When looked at in the context of the time it was written, it also points out the kinds of violent stances some people were taking in terms of defending their fallout shelters (one man who was interviewed for a August 18, 1961 Time magazine article called “Gun Thy Neighbor” proclaimed “”When I get my shelter finished, I’m going to mount a machine gun at the hatch to keep the neighbors out if the bomb falls. I’m deadly serious about this. If the stupid American public will not do what they have to to save themselves, I’m not going to run the risk of not being able to use the shelter I’ve taken the trouble to provide to save my own family.”) and portrays scenes in which the female protagonist becomes a target for rape. The girl leaves on her own, stealing the suit, and refusing to become submissive to the scientist. (Note: While this book was mostly written at the time of Conly’s death, his wife and daughter finished it for publication. In personally reviewing the available manuscripts at the University of Minnesota, I believe that most of Conly’s overall intentions were preserved. See my thesis for some additional details on these changes.)
A Report from Group 17: A Report from Group 17 was Conly’s only book for adults. It returns to the issues of scientific testing ethics – this time including a human test subject. Even the names of the scientists are almost the same – Dr. Schultz vs. Dr. Schulz. A Cold War thriller, it also includes covert biowarfare, Nazi war criminals who have escaped prosecution, and sexual sadism. One gets the impression that Conly is saying things about unethical scientific practices that he could not address in his children’s works. It also seems likely that there is an allusion to Dr. Mengele in his antagonists. These antagonists are working on a drug that will make the victims passive toward those who control them. I feel it also subtly suggests (or at least leaves the option open) that these kinds of outlawed studies are going on even in the United States.
This books is no longer in print, but places like the fantastic abebooks.com may have used copies for sale.
“Brain without heart is far more dangerous than heart without brain.” Robert G. Ingersoll
So, just a few short months ago, I was delighted to receive final approval on my thesis for my M.A. in American Culture/Liberal Studies. It came after at least five years of my love affair with Robert Conly’s Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.* My thesis focused on all four of Conly’s works – three children’s/young adult books, one adult book (no longer in print) – as a reflection of science and technological anxieties in the American Culture during the 1960s. It was a fantastic ride in which I spent five days at the National Library of Medicine (to research John B. Calhoun – one of the inspirations of Mrs. Frisby, two days at the National Geographic Magazine Archives, and one day getting the fantastic chance to review original Conly manuscripts at the University of Minnesota. In the coming months, I plan to create posts that describe my research and findings. In the meantime, anyone who has access to ProQuest or the University of Michigan libraries can find a copy of my thesis online. If you’re all that curious, I have also included a link to it below. Title: The Book of Nicodemus and Other Apocrypha: The Works of Robert C. O’Brien as a Reflection of Technological/Scientific Anxieties in 1960s American Culture Author: Arahshiel Rose Silver
*Yes, it is a children’s book, as were three of his four published works, however, the deeper messages in Conly’s books often addressed the dangers of science unchecked by ethics or emotion. He was also one of the first authors to have books published for younger audiences with such content. Z for Zachariah, for example, portrayed a world in which most humans in the area had been eliminated by nuclear war.
Unlike the film, “Secret of NIMH,” Conly’s book is more subtle and does not paint science in the “mad scientist” way. It asks important questions – but his books are NOT anti-science. Conly was NOT against technology or science – he just wanted the concerns for humanity and what makes us human borne in mind.
Robert Conly was born in 1918, during the final throes of World War I, to parents in the bustling megalopolis of New York City. It was a time considered by some to be America’s first loss of ‘innocence’ or ‘faith’ in the new age of technology and scientific discovery. His family moving shortly after his birth to Amityville, Long Island. His teenage years included the era of the Great Depression and the year of his twentieth birthday was marked by Hitler’s invasion of the Sudentland. The terrible power of nuclear weaponry took the world stage only years later in the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
All of this before the age of thirty. Despite his later successes in the world of the printed word, Conly wasn’t necessarily an A+ student. According to wife Sally, Conly “feared school and some mornings was literally dragged screaming into the classroom.” (90) His first love wasn’t writing at all, but, much like another major figure in childhood communication, Fred Rogers (ten years Conly’s junior), the young Conly found comfort in music. “He could sing before he could talk; his favorite amusement was the family windup Victrola; and he has had a lifelong preoccupation with music both as a listener and as a performer” said his wife of him. He would later attend the Julliard School of Music, and while music (and a sense of humor) would play a part in helping him socially in his teen years, the world of music performance would not be Conly’s destiny. His college years included what he referred to as his “breakdown,” leading to his temporary retreat from the college worldm he would return to “his family in disgrace – parents being less tolerant of dropping out of college than they are now.”
No, it would be another childhood talent would pave the way for young Robert’s success. “He had a propensity and talent for dreaming,” according to his wife. “He could and did regularly create splendid imaginary worlds, with himself in dazzling, heroic roles,” she said of her husband. “While all children do this to some extent, [his] fantasy world was so vivid that he still remembers the place and hour when he (by then a student in high school) made a solemn decision to give it up and to concentrate on living in the real world.”
Instead, Conly pursued English, completing his degree and then entering the formal world of the written word in 1940, with Newsweek magazine. Four years latter (and one year after his marriage to partner Sally Conly) he would move on to a position with Newsweek and a new home in Washington D.C. A humorous article, “The Joker in the Sky,” an article on the existence of ball lightning, was just one of his articles from that time, published on April 14, 1946 in The Baltimore Sun. His decades-long work with National Geographic magazine began in 1951, a fateful appointment which would not only take him all over the world, but would result in his visit to the laboratory of Dr. John B. Calhoun, then with the National Institutes of Mental Health, and one of the most important influences of his future Newbery novel. In the early 1960s, Conly developed glaucoma, forcing him to move from the country back to New York City in 1963.
It was only during the last decade of his life that Conly took on writing fiction – it was then that he would adopt his pen name, Robert C. O’Brien. His works of fiction were published between 1968 and 1974. The first title, The Silver Crown, a fantasy-science fiction tale for young readers was published in 1968. His second book, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, another title intended for a children’s audience title arrived in 1971. The least well known of his works, and the only title written for an adult audience, A Report from Group 17, was released in the next year: 1972. Conly’s final book, the post-apocalyptic Z for Zachariah, would be published posthumously in 1974; the book’s publication made possible as a result of collaboration between his wife and daughter.
His fiction often bridged the gaps between anxieties and concerns of the adult world and the world of children. Said Sally Conly, “In his fiction, though, there is some evidence that [he] has not entirely outgrown influences of his childhood. One finds in his books a fascination with valleys, with hidden worlds, with new societies; he writes with particular sympathy for and perception of children and children’s feelings.”She would go further by saying that his writing often resembled his life: along with his clear fascination and respect for nature, she remarked upon his ability to create empathy for characters, both animals and human.  When asked about why he wrote books for children, Conly said it was because “children like a straightforward, honest plot–the way God meant plots to be–with a beginning, a middle, and an end: a problem, an attempt to solve it, and at the end a success or a failure.”
Conly described the children’s process of reading as a substantially different process. While adults who read books may simply be further exercising problem-solving skills they use in day-to-day life, for a child, these stories may present them with issues and questions they have not yet encountered. As they begin to confront situations that may raise issues, fears, emotions, and questions, they are able to take a moment to put the book down and to really thinks about everything that is going on and how they, themselves, are reacting to it. In reading a book, the child’s developing mind “learns about love, hate, fear, sadness, courage, kindness. All these things are in the world around it.” Conly also felt that children’s literature should leave some room for shades of grey and create a world in which children get the idea that everything in life can be sifted into categories of good and evil. “The mind learns that it is not easy to separate good from bad; they become deviously intertwined. From books it learns that not all doors are simply open or shut, and that even rats can become heroes.”