The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer (2002)
Note: This review contains mild spoilers.
The House of the Scorpion is a novel intended for young adults, but it is only distinguishable as that by the youth of its main characters and the sometimes simplistic straightforwardness of the writing. The themes it addresses — the outsider, the moral obligations of those in power, the determination of nature vs. nurture — are much more complex and will appeal to readers of any age.
The House of the Scorpion is set 140 years in the future, in a dystopian country called Opium or Dreamland, located between the U.S. and Mexican (now Aztlan) borders. Opium was founded by a drug lord named El Patrón in a deal with its bordering countries to eliminate illegal immigration and funnel the drug trade to Asia, Europe and Africa. El Patrón rules Opium absolutely, modeling it on a fantasy version of his childhood Mexico. His Farm Patrol captures illegals and lobotomizes them, turning them into slaves called “eejits” or “zombies” to work the opium fields. El Patrón keeps himself alive by harvesting organs and tissue as needed from clones of himself, whose brains are also destroyed.
Except, in his hubris, El Patrón decides to keep the brain of of one his clones, a boy named Matt, intact. The novel is divided into sections based on Matt’s age and important periods in his life, from youth to middle age to old age. Never intended to have a long life, Matt’s “death” — and most critical turning point — comes at age 14, when he discovers that his true purpose is not to take over the family business from El Patrón, but to supply his next heart. The House of the Scorpion is Matt’s coming-of-age story, and at this point when Matt escapes to Aztlan, he begins the final process of becoming himself: no longer a despised, inferior clone, an outsider, but a true leader.
Sharing El Patrón’s genetics, Matt also shares many of his characteristics: pride, innate leadership, the drive to do what is necessary to achieve his goals. For most of his youth, although he is largely ostracized, Matt is not completely alone. Three people highly influence him: Celia, the woman who raises him and loves him unconditionally; Tam Lin, his bodyguard, who teaches him about the world and who believes in him; and Maria, his childhood friend who shows Matt that he is capable of being loved, despite being a clone. These are influences that El Patrón lacked. So when Matt comes into his own as a leader, he has the potential to do what El Patrón never could: to correct the egregious moral sins of his culture.
The House of the Scorpion won many honors, including the Newbery Award and the National Book Award for young adult literature.