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Saturday, May 10, 2008

The House of Scorpion Stings With Power

(Image from

Whenever I read, I take notes. For a mystery/thriller, I will maybe use one page of my small yellow legal pad. Literary fiction, classics and non-fiction usually garner 2-3 pages. The fact that I jotted down 4 pages of notes while reading Nancy Farmer's The House of the Scorpion tells you just how much this young adult novel preyed on my mind. As I peeled back each of its many subtle layers, I found more and more to ponder. Don't worry, action fans, it's not as cerebral as I make it sound. In fact, it's one of those books that has it all - action, mystery, adventure, and even a little romance.

The hero of the tale goes by the name of Matteo Alacran. When the story opens, 6-year-old Matt is living in an isolated cottage in the middle of a vast poppy field. His caretaker, Celia, works at the "Big House," home of the legendary drug lord who owns all the fields, which supply the opium he exports all over the world. Although Matt has lived on the estate all his life, he has never ventured beyond the cottage's front door. Celia warns him to stay safely inside, "hidden in the nest like a good little mouse" (5), but he can't help being curious about the outside world. When a trio of children come traipsing through the fields, Matt can't help himself. He has never seen other children, and he longs to play with them. Escaping from the cottage requires him to smash a window and leap to the ground; in the process, he slices his legs, prompting the other children to drag him to the Big House. Foggy from pain, Matt hovers on the edge of consciousness as a team of maids rush to extract glass from his wounds. When they discover the tattoo on his foot, proclaiming him "Property of the Alacran Estate," the servants recoil in horror. Despite his injuries, Matt is whisked away and dumped roughly outside.

As Matt lies abandoned on the ground, he learns the truth of his existence from the children who discovered him. They say he is a clone, created in a lab for El Patron. Cloning happens regularly in the futuristic world of the Alacrans, but clones' brains are always destroyed at birth. Matt is the exception. Elderly El Patron wanted Matt raised as a real boy, but insisted his existence remain a secret. The children view him as a freak of nature, except for Maria, who sides with any suffering creature. The Alacrans' servants know better than to dismiss anything of El Patron's, but they refuse to acknowledge Matt's humanity, locking him up in a filthy room where he sleeps on sawdust and plays with cockroaches and chicken bones. When Maria, who visits the estate only on vacation, learns of Matt's deplorable situation, she runs straight to Celia, who rats out the other servants to El Patron. Outraged, the old man esconces Matt in a luxurious apartment, where he receives care from Celia. El Patron also appoints Tam Lin, a Scottish outlaw, to guard Matt against the rest of the household, who view him as a filthy animal.

Once Matt learns the truth about himself, he starts to see all of the ugliness around him. He finds that the numerous field workers are really eejits - people who have had computer chips inserted into their brains to keep them docile enough to perform long hours of back-breaking labor. Matt's horrified to discover this "mindless army of slaves" (171), who will starve themselves unless told to eat. Likewise, Matt sees that many of the Big House's occupants have become just as dazed by consuming opium and alcohol. His most startling discovery, however, concerns himself, and the true reason El Patron protects him so savagely.

As Matt struggles to come to terms with the cruel world he inhabits, he must also come to terms with himself. Is he really an animal like everyone says he is? Or is the truth more in line with Tam Lin's belief that "No one can tell the difference between a clone and a human. That's because there isn't any difference. The idea of clones being inferior is a filthy lie" (245). Or is it the way someone is treated that truly makes them an animal? Who is more human, after all - the boy who "nailed frogs to the lawn so they could be devoured by herons" (213) or the one who confesses to a crime he doesn't commit so he can save the girl he loves from feeling more pain than she has to?

When Matt finally sees the Alarcans as the scorpions they truly are, he knows it is up to him to save the land and the people he loves from their violent rule. He embarks on a brave journey that will take him through the dangerous borderlands, into hells of all sorts, and back into the treachorous Alacran estate where he must make a final stand against the very people who gave him life.

A quick synopsis simply doesn't do justice to this chilling, multi-layered novel. On one level, it's a straightforward sci fi mystery/thriller; at its heart, however, it's a haunting reminder of what happens when one group of people tramples another. El Patron's hateful treatment of the eejits recalls both American slavery and Hitler's annihilation of Jews during WWII. The House of Scorpions decries intolerance and demands individual courage as well as freedom over mind-numbing substances. It's a powerful book that will chill you to the bone and haunt you long after you've finished it. Despite its hopeful conclusion, the book remains a troubling testament to the great inhumanity of which man is capable.

The House of Scorpions deserves every award it has received. It's masterful, complex, and powerful. The characters ring true, the plot races along, the ending satisfies - in short, it's an excellent book. Personally, I prefer warmer, fuzzier stories, but this one deserves top marks despite its bleakness.

Grade: A


  1. I loved, loved, loved this book! It got me into other Nancy Farmer books and she is one of my favorites. My other favorite of hers is The Eye, The Ear and The Arm (if I have that right). Sea of Trolls is not quite as much of a page turner, but is very clever, and she has recently written a sequel. Anyways, needless to say I was excited when I saw your review!

  2. I never heard of this author and it sounds like a great book! Thanks for the review!

  3. I have had this and The Eye, The Ear and The Arm on my TBR list forever. One day I hope to read them. It's great to know you rated this one an "A"!

  4. I actually found The House of the Scorpion when I was looking for a different book by this author - the first one in a trilogy - ugh, I can't remember the name. Anyway, I definitely plan to read more of Nancy Farmer's books.

  5. I LOVE this book. Your review pretty much sums it all up. It is a wonderful book, and very deserving of all the awards. It is a book that makes you think, while never losing sight of the humanity of its characters. I've read it twice now, and I always get so wrapped up in Matt's story! All of the characters, for good or evil, play a part in his life.


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