Saturday, October 3, 2009

The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer

The House of the Scorpion was the October 2009 pick of the Book Wizards book club (a great group of young adults with intellectual disabilities; I’m lucky enough to be one of the facilitators). It’s classified as a children’s/young reader’s book, but its subject matter and writing style put it on the older end of that spectrum. It won several awards when published in 2002. At 380 pages, it’s a longer read than many adult books in this age of shrinking attention spans, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it as a good adult fiction choice.

The action is set about one hundred years from now, on the border between the United States and Mexico, now called Atzlán. A country called Opium has been created between the two countries, to act as a buffer zone for deterring illegal immigration and to produce opium legally. Former drug lords are now the heads of powerful syndicates, controlling the huge estates where opium is farmed and running highly effective border patrols.

This plausible and almost reasonable scenario does, of course, have its drawbacks. The drug lords have complete power within their own estates, and, having struggled to rise out of appalling poverty, don’t have a great regard for human life. Captured illegals are fitted with a computer chip which deprives them of any ability to make decisions for themselves – slavery perfected, in a sense, because these people are completely unaware of their enslavement.

The second result of the drug lords’ unlimited wealth and power is that they extend their lives way beyond the normal human span by growing clones of themselves that can be used for spare parts. The normal practice is to stunt the clones’ intellects at birth and raise them as animals; but the whim of the most powerful drug lord, Matteo Alacrán, is occasionally to raise one of his clones as a normal boy, with all of his intelligence and strong will, and give him the privileged childhood he, Matteo, did not have – until he is old enough to provide the required organs.

So this book is the story of Matt, a Matteo Alacrán clone, and his gradual awakening to awareness of who – and what – he is, and what is in store for him. I won’t spoil the story by going over the plot development, because this book is above all a page-turner. The plot’s pretty complex, with a number of well-drawn secondary characters. It brings in several sociological and ethical issues: cloning, obviously, and the use of technology to produce a controllable workforce, but it’s also a study of power and its abuses, and how people react to finding themselves in a state of powerlessness. The social system of Opium is contrasted with the orphanages of Atzlán, which are run on socialist lines for the children of illegal immigrants; they’re no less morally bankrupt than the drug estates, and provide some fascinating points of comparison.

The net result is a book that you can read simply as an exciting story or as a social commentary, at any age from middle school upwards. Pretty good for a children’s book! I can see why teen/young adult literary fiction is gaining ground; its linear plot development and clearly defined points of view are much easier to get your head round than much of today’s adult literary fiction, which is often, to my mind, self-consciously “arty” to the point where you can’t see the plot for the episodes. Don’t get me wrong, I like that kind of book too, but sometimes you just want a good story that also gives you a few things to think about. And The House of the Scorpion will satisfy on both counts.


Tere Kirkland said...

Never even heard of this book, but your review has me hungry for something like this after devouring Catching Fire. I'll have to look out for this at the bookstore. Thanks.

Again, great review for what sounds like an excellent read. said...

Good review! I loved this book, and had similar reservations before reading it, i.e. being a 23 and reading a book marketed to a pre-teen/teen crowd. Its surprisingly mature, the content one that any adult would find interesting. A definite "recommend" from me :)