Author: Nancy Farmer
Publication Date: 9/1/02
Blurb: Matteo Alacrán was not born; he was harvested.
His DNA came from El Patrón, 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 Patrón. El Patrón loves 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 Patrón'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 from the Alacrán Estate is no guarantee of freedom, because Matt is marked by his difference in ways he doesn't even suspect.
Flannery made me do it and I am pleased that she did. I have no idea why I've been avoiding The House of the Scorpion for so long. Just look at its accolades - National Book Award Winner, Printz Honoree, Newbery Honoree. It practically has my name written on it.
But, is The House of the Scorpion worth such an overwhelming acclaim though?
I'd say, its first 215 pages and the last 20 are (ebook edition).
The first two thirds of the book are riveting. This story is not just a clone story. (For some reason, the majority of stories about clones focus on exactly the same things.) Yes, it is horrifying in how it examines the (familiar) debate about a clone's humanity and soulless(ful)ness. Matt is a clone and is defined by people around him as livestock, a source of body parts, and not a human being. (How can he be human if he was grown in and harvested from a cow?) Nancy Farmer takes Matt's character on a journey of self-discovery and self-awareness that allows him to accept that he is not what he is told he is, that he is as much of a human being as any person around him. It is a compelling journey, even though its sentiment isn't particularly new to me - I've read Never Let Me Go and watched The Island.
But, thankfully, there is more to distinguish The House of the Scorpion from similar stories.
First, the novel is set in Mexico (well, a future version of it). This country's life is written richly and authentically and never feels like just an exotic backdrop. I am no expert on Mexican culture though, so I might have felt that in awe of it as portrayed in The House of the Scorpion because of the narrator of the audio, who infused Mexican flavor into the story most organically.
Second, this is a story of a drug lord and his enslaved family. El Patrón feels he is owed a few generations worth of life, and he will stop at nothing to get what he thinks he is entitled to. Cloning is a part of his plan for immortality. It's in Matt's relationship with his master and owner where the story shines the most. How would a clone feel about the person who is identical to him, the source of his life? Would he be able to hate him, essentially hating himself? If a clone's genetic make-up is similar to that of a ruthless criminal, does it mean that this clone is destined to follow the same path and become the same vicious person? Or is there a way to break away from the prototype? And how would a master feel about his own clone? Would it be possible for him to treat this younger version of himself as an organ bank, or there exists a connection that is closer than even that between a father and a child? These questions had my brain working, and this part of the book was 5-star material for me.
But then came the escape part, in the last third of the book, and I found myself struggling with it. I was bored, I didn't feel like those pages (3-months of Matt's life worth) connected well thematically with the overreaching story arc, I didn't think they were necessary, I didn't think that a whole set of new characters (including villains) needed to be introduced so late in the story, and I surely didn't think that anti-socialist rants needed to come into play. (How did they relate to Matt's journey?) I thought, those pages only occupied time with no real bearing on the rest of the novel. To me, those 80 pages could have been completely cut out.
Thankfully, the ending did save The House of the Scorpion. It happens so infrequently in books, but it did bring the story full circle to El Patrón, and it was satisfying. But that big chunk of the novel, unfortunately, made me much less willing to recommend it, even though during the first part of the book I kept thinking this novel would be a great fit for fans of Unwind. I might reread The House of the Scorpion in future, but I'll be sure to skip over a big part of it.