The first time I read The House of the Scorpion it was the name that drew me in. The promise is of a power-hungry family, the Alacráns (Spanish for scorpion), toughened by time until they resemble the venomous insect from which they borrow their name. At the center of this struggle is Matteo Alacrán, the clone of El Patron, an elderly feudal drug lord. For the last 100 years El Patron has ruled the wealthy country of Opium with an iron fist, creating a frightening world for Matt to survive in.
But the second time I read it, it was because I wanted to know why this book works so well.
The single greatest success of Nancy Farmer’s epic is that elusive element that every science fiction author strives for: a fully-realized world. The book features a family tree and an annotated cast list to help the reader keep track of the important relationships and crucial historical backdrop. Occasionally, Farmer awkwardly drops details where they don’t quite flow, but for the most part, she synthesizes her exposition with the story well. In addition, unlike the gritty, urban settings so popular today (Minority Report), or the gleaming future-scapes envisioned in the past (Star Wars), Farmer creates a romantic view of the Opium. The emphasis on Spanish phrases and desert flora and fauna paints a deceptively beautiful picture of life in Opium. We don’t know the precise year, but El Patron keeps his kingdom (located roughly between the US and Mexico) as close to his childhood village possible. The buildings have no air conditioning, and on sweet nights you can smell the mesquite and hear the coyotes howl. Yet beneath this façade is a world where eejits, mentally incapacitated slave laborers, harvest opium for the masses. The ambiguity found in Opium is far more terrifying than an overt dystopia would be.
Then there is Matt, a product of modern technology, yearning to be free of his inhuman status. Impressively, Farmer’s lucid style matures as Matt ages from a simple child to a complex teenager but never loses the fairy tale theme; Matt desperately wants to be a ‘real boy.’ At times, other characters stand out in their own archetypes: the dragon (El Patron), the caring godmother (Celia), the evil stepmother (Felicia), the beautiful princess (Maria), and the powerful wizard (Tam Lin). Rather than using these characters to over-simplify Matt’s character arc, they guide his quest and give the book its larger-than-life feel. Thankfully, the plot strays from the well-trod paths of fairy tales, tending more toward to the brutal realities of the world Farmer creates.
The House of the Scorpion is the recipient of both the National Book Award and the Newberry Honor, two of the most prestigious literary awards. It may have received them for asking a simple question: is cloning acceptable? Matt, as a sympathetic character, would suggest that clones aren’t innately bad. Yet he was created for a vile purpose. As with anything in this book, it’s complicated—but oh boy is it worth it.
Bottom Line: For all of its horrors, its wonders, and its questions, this book has rightfully earned a place in the pantheon of great youth literature.
Evan is a learning teenage writer whose ambition is to become a film director someday, but not until he’s published a few books first. In the meantime, he spends his time playing drums in his jazz band 3 AM Groove, writing for the school paper, building sets on stage crew, and trying to perfect his 100 greatest movies of all time list. He does not like long walks on the beach.