Six-year-old Matt has grown up in a tiny cabin, locked away from the world and watched over by his loving caregiver, Celia. He lives on the Alacrán Estate in Opium (once called Mexico), which lies on the U.S. border. The only view from his window is a vast field of white poppies. Celia is a servant of the Alacráns, so while she works during the day, Matt is locked in the house and told to hide. Matt doesn’t know any other sort of life, so he doesn’t find it strange that he must “stay hidden in the nest like a good little mouse.” One day, several children living on the Alacrán Estate discover his home and coax him out. In the process of climbing out the window, he wounds himself badly. The worried children bring him to a great house, where the adults soon realize that he is a clone. Unfortunately, clones are considered sub-human. What Matt doesn’t know yet is that he is the clone of the most powerful man in the country, great-grandfather of the Alacráns and ruler of Opium: El Patrón.
This doesn’t stop the Alacráns, El Patrón’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren, from treating Matt like an animal: “To most people around him, Matt is not a boy, but a beast. A room full of chicken litter with roaches for friends and old chicken bones for toys is considered good enough for him. But for El Patrón…Matt is a guarantee of eternal life. El Patrón loves Matt as he loves himself, for Matt is himself” (jacket).
In his society, Matt learns, clones are rendered braindead at birth. Somehow, Matt has escaped some of a clone’s fate: he has been educated and taken care of by Celia, but he doesn’t know why. Is it El Patrón’s doing? Is the drug lord El Patrón a man with a good heart? Does Matt possess the same qualities that brought the man who shares his DNA to power? Despite El Patrón’s special treatment, the rest of the Alacrán family continue to scorn Matt whenever El Patrón’s back is turned. Matt’s only friends are Celia, Tam Lin (El Patron’s body guard, who has been charged with Matt’s protection), and the kindly Maria, one of the girls who found six-year-old Matt in his shack in the poppy fields.
“At his coming-of-age-party, Matteo Alacrán asks El Patrón’s bodyguard, ‘How old am I?…I know I don’t have a birthday like humans, but I was born.’
‘You were harvested,’ Tam Lin reminds him. ‘You were grown in that poor cow for nine months and then you were cut out of her.'”
As Matt grows from a child into a teenager, he discovers that his life is not nearly as secure as it was when he was hidden away with Celia in the poppy fields. He doesn’t know who his true friends are, but he has many enemies. House of the Scorpion is entirely captivating: it has plenty of action, truly great characters, and some very surprising twists. Farmer has done a wonderful job of showing the world through Matt’s eyes. Here’s what sci-fi/fantasy great Ursula K. LeGuin wrote about the book:
“It’s a pleasure to read science fiction that’s full of warm, strong characters–people who are really fond of one another, children who are ignorant and vulnerable, powerful evildoers whom one can pity, good people who make awful mistakes. It’s a pleasure to read science fiction that doesn’t rely on violence as the solution to complex problems of right and wrong… It’s a pleasure to read House of the Scorpion!”
I have been a longtime fan of Nancy Farmer, and this book, with the three glittering awards adorning its cover–The Printz, the Newbery, and the National Book Award–was impossible to resist. I mistakenly left our copy at the library one weekend, and I was so distraught that I actually had to buy the e-book so that I could read it in the meantime. It was that good.
If you know a young adult who is interested in science fiction which is driven by a gripping storyline and interesting characters, this is a great suggestion! Farmer’s Lord of Opium, the long-awaited sequel to House of the Scorpion, is also available at the library.