A friend had been insisting for months that I must read The House of the Scorpion, which I had never even heard of before nor had I read anything by its author, Nancy Farmer. And so when I spied it at my favorite second-hand bookshop last week I decided to give the book a try and see if it is as good as my friend insisted. But even had it not already been so highly recommended to me, the blurb on the book's back cover would probably have enticed me enough on its own.
Matt Alacran was not born: He was harvested. His DNA came from El Patron, lord of a country called Opium- a strip of poppy fields lying between the United States and what was once called Mexico. Matt’s first cell split and divided inside a petri dish. Then he was placed in the womb of a cow, where he continued the miraculous journey from embryo to fetus to baby. He is a boy now, but most consider him a monster- except for El Patron. El Patron loved Matt as he loves himself, because Matt is himself.
As Matt struggles to understand his existence, he is threatened by a sinister cast of characters, including El Patron’s power-hungry family, and he is surrounded by a dangerous army of bodyguards. Escape is the only chance Matt has to survive. But escape fro the Alazran Estate is no guarantee of freedom, because Matt is marked by his difference in ways he doesn’t even suspect.
Until the age of 6 Matt’s world is limited to the confines of the small cottage he shares with Celia, the only mother he has ever known. When Celia leaves for work each day at the Big House she remind Matt to stay hidden and to not go near the windows, where he might be seen. But everything changes the day that some children wander near the cottage, the first that Matt has ever seen, and in his eagerness to meet them Matt gets noticed. Suddenly Matt’s world is turned upside-down when he is taken away from Celia and introduced to the frightening and harsh world which Celia has taken-care to protect him from.
Everything that Matt has assumed about himself is soon challenged when he discovers that he is not actually a little boy but a clone of the powerful drug lord, El Patron. While clones are commonly created for the harvesting of their organs, by law they are required to be mentally incapacitated upon birth. But El Patron is above the law and so Matt had been created in his image, to the disgust of his family. Even those who had at first befriended Matt are quick to despise him when they learn the truth about his origins, all except soft-hearted Maria. But even Maria isn’t quite convinced that Matt isn’t in the same category as her beloved poodle, and so the only one in whose love Matt really trusts is El Patron.
But as El Patron’s health begins to deteriorate Matt is forced to consider that the patriarch’s favor towards him might have its limits and that his place within the Alacran household is not as firm as he had assumed. In a country where trespassers are turned into mindless drones and hospitals are full of crazed and shackled clones, Matt’s chance for survival is becoming increasingly slim.
The House of the Scorpion is a compelling and at times frightening coming-of-age story about a boy in search of love and acceptance from a society that despises him. Farmer has built a futuristic world in which some of today’s issues, such as drug trafficking, cloning and illegal immigration are resolved in an extreme and horrifying manner, and are viewed through Matt’s guiles eyes, as he slowly gains an understanding of Opium and the man whom he so full-heartedly idolizes.
This is a powerful book that I think most readers of dystopic fiction will enjoy, as well as those who are new to the genre. I do think that young adult readers will find it slightly more satisfying than adults just because of the way some of the character development fell a bit short of what I had hoped for, but which I don’t think would be noticed by younger readers.
The end was also less-than satisfying, lacking the drive and intensity of the earlier parts of the book and tying the story up a little too neatly. While it was nice to finally read a dystopic book with a hopeful ending it was just a little too pat the way certain characters appeared just when they were needed and the way events fell into place to make the perfect happy ending. And while I’m all for happy endings, something about the way this one came together just didn’t sit right with me. But, once again, I don’t think this is an issue that would bother most young adult readers and I personally didn’t let it color my enjoyment of the rest of the book.
I think The House of the Scorpion is a wonderful book that can make for some interesting discussions and which I would highly recommend to both adult and YA readers.