- Genre: This is a science fiction book set in the future in a time when science has advanced to the point that using clones as replacement parts is viable and when society is willing to sacrifice individuality in order to keep peace.
- Book Summary: El Patron keeps a clone constantly at hand in order to keep replacing his parts as they break down. He rules his kingdom by maintaining a profitable opium farm between the United States and a fictional country that might as well be Mexico. It is a complicated story of greed, slavery, love, family, rebellion and more. Although futuristic, it touches on current events and raises ethical questions that current students will likely have to vote or act on in their lifetime. Matt, the protagonist, learns hard lessons on an ever-twisting journey to adulthood with an ironic and satisfying ending.
- APA Reference of Book: Farmer, N. (2002). The house of the scorpion. New York, NY: Scholastic.
- Library Uses: This would be good for a book talk in middle or high school. I used to think it was mainly a middle school book, but I am finding that it would be challenging for many of my high school students. It connects to the current issues of immigration, governmental corruption, the ethics of scientific/medical breakthroughs, and more.
- Impressions: When this book originally came out, I was unable to persuade any of my colleagues that it was worth buying class sets of. Whether the length seemed daunting or they dismissed it because of its science fiction bent and their prejudices against that genre, I don’t know. I think it has enjoyed some popularity in classrooms, and I was just getting my high school colleagues to read it and consider it for a class assignment when I left teaching last year. It broaches so many good current topics in an engaging story that it’s wonderful to use not only for reading but for social studies connections.
- Professional Review: http://www.nytimes.com/2002/11/17/books/children-s-books-disorder-at-the-border.html?auth=login-email
CHILDREN’S BOOKS; Disorder at the Border
By ROGER SUTTON NOV. 17, 2002
THE HOUSE OF THE SCORPION
By Nancy Farmer.
PARENTS of today’s young adolescents might remember when drug book meant ”Go Ask Alice” or ”Angel Dust Blues” — cautionary tales of use synonymous with abuse. While Nancy Farmer’s latest novel, ”The House of the Scorpion,” has as its setting the vast poppy farm of a drug baron, it is unconcerned with the perils of addiction, and its roots reach rather farther back into children’s literature — to ”Pinocchio,” for starters.
Matteo Alacrán is a clone, made from a cell taken from El Patrón, the elderly (really elderly; he’s 142 when the book begins) undisputed leader of the Farmers, the men who control the sinister borderlands of the United States and Aztlán, formerly Mexico. Although the law states that a clone must have ”its” (a pronoun the author uses with pointed effect) consciousness destroyed at birth, Matt has his — or are they El Patrón’s? — faculties intact. He’s going to need all of them to find out just who he is, what he is and why he was created.
These are questions of literature, of course, and like Collodi (or Spielberg, in ”A.I.”) before her, Nancy Farmer uses a boy who wants desperately to be human to get readers to think about what that means, and how far they are willing to expand their definition. Our empathy for Matt is established from the start, when we meet him living in isolation with a loving guardian, Celia, in the far reaches of the poppy fields in a cottage that is cozy but nonetheless a prison.
When three children — the first Matt has ever seen who weren’t on television — happen by and discover him, Matt thinks he’s found friends, but only until they and, more important, their father, see what is stamped on his foot: ”Property of the Alacrán Estate.” The revelation of Matt’s existence and his condition to the denizens of the estate puts into play the plot of allies (one of the children; his guardian, Celia; and a swaggering bodyguard) and enemies (just about everybody else). El Patrón’s loyalties extend only as far as himself, but does his concept of himself extend to Matt?
It’s a big, ambitious tale, and Nancy Farmer’s readers will be used to that; indeed, ”The House of the Scorpion” is a finalist for this year’s National Book Award for young people’s literature. Her novels ”The Ear, the Eye and the Arm” and ”A Girl Named Disaster,” both Newbery Honor books, are also large-scale stories in which children battle inner demons and ferocious villains in a series of perilous adventures through hostile but richly conceived landscapes. Assisting all of these children are helper figures of folkloric dimension. Matt’s is the bodyguard Tam Lin, in legend a captive of the faeries, here a fugitive from Scottish justice who serves as Matt’s compass both moral and geographical, giving him the tools he needs to escape his fate and find his future.
Tam Lin is a welcome benevolence in a novel abounding in creepily gothic images: the cows gestating the clone embryos (”their bodies were exercised by giant metal arms that grasped their legs and flexed them as though the cows were walking through an endless field”); the ”eejits,” surgically brain-damaged laborers and servants who perform the repetitive tasks on the estate; a mindless clone screaming as its body serves its purpose, organ transplant, while Matt watches and recognizes their horrifying kinship.
The author ably keeps her elements in balance, so that the Dr. Frankenstein moments never become gratuitous; in fact, the unemotional narration at times seems detached, wary of lingering too long in any one place. The best scenes are the ones for which we get to stick around for a while — when Matt is kept for months in a sawdust-filled pen like an animal by a malevolent housekeeper, or later, when he escapes the estate and finds himself in a home for lost boys. The first scene is harrowingly desolate; the second has plenty of spirit and even some humor, as Matt finds himself leading a revolt.
While the question of Matt’s humanity drives the novel, it gets answered and then dropped too easily; still, it’s an enormous credit to Farmer that the story, character development and theme grow all of a piece. Details about how the Farms came to be, how Mexico became Aztlán and how Matteo Alacrán Primero became El Patrón become part of Matt’s story as well: we learn them as he does, and his knowledge moves the narrative forward.
Although ”The House of the Scorpion” is nominally science fiction, its conventions are primarily those of realistic fiction, with more than a whiff of the old-fashioned adventure tale, the kind we rarely see these days outside the fantasy genre. Both critics and young readers appreciate books about children in trouble, the former for reasons more high-minded than the latter. Although adults like to look for the social lesson in tales of dreadful circumstance, kids know that trouble is more exciting than contentment. Ask Pinocchio.
Awards: This book has won many state and other awards. The most prominent are:
National Book Award for Young People’s Literature – 2002
Newbery Honor – 2003
Michael Printz Award Honor Book – 2003
Readalikes: Fahrenehit 451 by Ray Bradbury – This futuristic book also deals with ethical dilemmas, but different ones than in Scorpion.
1984 by George Orwell – An older even more science fictional book than Scorpion, but with similar themes.
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins – A more contemporary dystopian book that deals with how to control populations, ethical choices, love, family, and friendship.