Kristin's Reviews > The House of the Scorpion

The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer
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Sep 12, 2012

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Warning: spoilers throughout!

Lack of independence is one of the most frustrating aspects of being a teenager. The sense that life is not your own; that everyone has the right to make the most insignificant decisions for you, can haunt even the most well-adjusted among us, well into not-so-young adulthood. In her YA novel, The House of the Scorpion, Nancy Farmer seems to focus on most infuriating question in the teenage soul: why can’t I make my own decisions? Farmer takes that question and weaves familiar issues of isolation and identity with a complex tale of a dystopian future in a country known as Opium.

The novel begins with Matt, a young boy who is blissfully, ignorantly confined to a small cottage with his caretaker, Celia. He breaks out and finds that while he has been living on the grounds of a palatial estate, his simple cottage might have been the better alternative to life in the big house. There, Matt is treated like an animal and suffers terrible emotional and physical wounds at the hands of the estate’s residents. As he matures, he learns why. A tattoo on his foot marking him as “Property of Alacrán Estates,” betrays him as a clone bred solely for the purpose of organ donation for the master of the Alacrán Estates, drug kingpin and preternaturally-aged despot of Opium, El Patrón.

Matt’s life is almost entirely outside of his control. He has a succession of caretakers, jailers, and bodyguards; but it’s no secret that the real puppet master is El Patrón, who rules his kingdom, right down to his clone, with cold, ferocious power. Unlike other clones whose brains are rendered useless at birth, Matt’s intellect remains intact by El Patrón’s orders. While at times, his intellect seems a crueler fate than ignorance, Matt uses it to his advantage as much as he can, ultimately escaping the compound, as well as the dangers he faces in the world outside, determined to right the many wrongs perpetrated by his genetically identical, yet strangely not morally identical, predecessor.

It is not solely through intellect that Matt escapes his hereditary and moral fate. In a strong argument for nurture over nature, his caregivers make all the difference. Celia provides maternal support, allowing Matt as much of a happy childhood as one could reasonably expect given his position in society, and teaching him the compassion and forgiveness that are missing in El Patrón. By holding on to her traditions and faith in God, she avoids the corruption of the Alacrán estate, and the resulting moral balance allow her to show Matt love in the face of societal disapproval. His other major influence is Tam Lin. A former terrorist, Tam Lin is who he is because of what he's done, and has vowed to repent and live a decent life. He acts as a role model for Matt, showing the boy that while one can’t undo the past, one can make better choices to make up for his mistakes. The love and support he receives from Celia and Tam Lin are integral to Matt’s survival and ability to thrive.

Why read it? The themes speak to so many recent concerns – the “big” issues of genetic ethics, political machinations, dictatorships, drug cartels, prejudice, and poverty, but also the more personal ones of identity, choices, and mercy. Which is all wonderful, but don’t we read for a good story? Character counts. Matt’s resemblance to a dystopian Job doesn't require sympathy or compassion from the reader. He demands the reader’s interest by surpassing a seemingly inescapable situation. He resists his genetic destiny and refuses to accept his fate.
He is compared to a dumb animal, yet he embraces knowledge.
He is mocked for being an abomination, yet he strives for goodness.
He is a genetic copy of evil, yet he uses free will to make moral decisions in the face of
opposition.
Matt has his share of flaws – he’s stubborn, impulsive, and surprisingly entitled at times – but that makes him incredibly, unbelievably human…for a clone.
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