The House of the Scorpion

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The House of the Scorpion
Front cover of first edition, later printing with medal images
AuthorNancy Farmer
Cover artistRussell Gordon
CountryUnited States
GenreYoung adult, science fiction novel, dystopian novel
PublisherAtheneum Books
Publication date
Media typePrint (hardback & paperback)
Pages380 (first edition, hard)
ISBN0-689-85222-3 (first edition, hard)
[Fic] 21
LC ClassPZ7.F23814 Ho 2002
Followed byThe Lord of Opium 

The House of the Scorpion (2002) is a science fiction young adult novel by Nancy Farmer. It is set in the future and mostly takes place in Opium, a country which separates Aztlán (formerly Mexico) and the United States. The main character Matteo, or Matt, Alacrán, is a young clone of a drug lord of the same name, usually called "El Patrón." It is a story about the struggle to survive as a free individual and the search for a personal identity. It won the U.S. National Book Award for Young People's Literature[1] and was named a Newbery Honor Book[2] and a Michael L. Printz Honor Book.[3] In the speculative fiction field, it was a runner-up for the Locus Award in the young adult category[4] and the Mythopoeic Award in the children's category.[5]

The idea was originally from a short story that Farmer wrote for an anthology, but she withdrew and decided to expand it after realizing it was too closely tied to her own life.[6] It is partially inspired by Farmer helping a Mexican man get to a city in Arizona after leaving Mexico,[6] evidenced in the story through its theme of illegal immigration. The book is not as long as Farmer would have liked because of its young adult audience.[6]

As The House of the Scorpion drew on so much of her childhood, Farmer found it difficult to write the sequel.[6] The sequel, entitled The Lord of Opium, was subsequently published on September 3, 2013. The story begins a few hours after the final events of the first book.[7]


The story is set in the country of Opium, a narrow strip of land between Mexico (now called Aztlán), and the United States, which is ruled by Matteo Alacrán, or El Patrón, an incredibly powerful drug lord who is over 140 years old. Opium consists of several drug-producing Farms, of which the Alacrán estate (which produces opium poppies) is the largest. The protagonist, Matt, is a clone of El Patrón. For the first six years of his life, he lives in a small house on the edge of the poppy fields with Celia, a cook working in El Patrón's mansion. When he is discovered by three children, Emilia and Steven and Maria, he smashes a window and jumps out of the house. Unaware of the danger of jumping barefoot onto smashed glass, he has to be carried to El Patrón's mansion and treated for his injuries. Matt is treated kindly until Mr. Alacrán, El Patrón's great-grandson, recognizes him as a clone, resulting in a few months where he is locked in a room and treated like an animal. When he finds out, El Patrón is furious, but gives Matt clothes and his own room and commands everyone to treat him with respect. Matt is also given a bodyguard, Tam Lin, a reformed terrorist, who becomes a father figure to him. He lives in the house for the next seven years and befriends María, a friendship that gradually blossoms into romance. Matt is kept in the dark about his identity, however, until a cruel joke reveals to him that he is a clone. Matt also discovers that all clones are supposed to be injected when "harvested" (born) with a compound that cripples their brains and turns them into little more than thrashing, drooling animals meant to donate organs. In denial, he convinces himself that El Patrón would not hire tutors for him and keep him entertained if he were intending to kill him, and that instead he must be wanted to run the country when El Patrón dies.

At Steven and Emilia's wedding, El Patrón has a near-fatal heart attack. Matt and María attempt to flee in the ensuing chaos but are betrayed by the newlyweds. María is taken back to the convent where she studies, and Matt is taken to the hospital, where El Patrón at last confirms that Matt was created only as an organ donor to keep him alive. At that moment, Celia reveals that she has been giving Matt doses of arsenic, which, though not large enough to kill Matt, would be deadly to one as frail as El Patrón. El Patrón's resulting rage causes him to have a fatal heart attack. Mr. Alacrán calls doctors to take him to emergency surgery, and after El Patrón dies, he orders Tam Lin to dispose of Matt; Tam Lin pretends to comply, but instead he gives Matt supplies and sets him on a path to Aztlán.

Arriving in Aztlán, Matt comes across a group of orphans called the "Lost Boys," who he is sent to live with by the "Keepers," fervent followers of Marxism. The Keepers operate plankton farms, forcing the orphans to do manual labor and subsist on plankton while they enjoy luxurious quarters and food. At first, Matt is an outcast because the other boys think he is a spoiled aristocrat. However, he becomes a hero when he defies the Keepers and leads the boys in a rebellion. He flees to the nearest city, San Luis, with three friends to find María and her mother, the politically powerful Esperanza Mendoza.

Esperanza thanks the boys for giving her the ability to take down the Keepers. Matt learns that Opium is in country-wide lock down, but manages to re-enter the country, only to learn that the entire Alacrán family is dead, and the estate is empty except for servants, including Celia. Those at El Patrón's wake, including Tam Lin, drank poisoned wine that El Patrón saved to be served at his funeral, as he never intended to die and wanted to either run the business forever, or have it and everyone else die with him. Matt takes on the role of El Patrón to become the new ruler of Opium and dismantle the regime.


  • Matt (short for Matteo) is the protagonist. He is a clone of El Patrón, created so he can be used for transplants to prolong El Patrón's life when his organs fail. Though most clones have their brains destroyed at birth, El Patrón's clones are left unharmed and live like normal human beings until he needs a transplant. Matt manages to escape the horrible fate of the previous eight clones and out-lives El Patrón, becoming the ruler of Opium and the most powerful man in the world.
  • Celia is a cook for the Alacrán estate and Matt's caregiver for much of his early life. She raises Matt in a house in the fields away from the main house. Despite her insistence that Matt not call her "mother," she serves as the maternal figure in Matt's life.
  • María is the daughter of Mr. Mendoza, an important politician that El Patrón is friends with. She is around Matt's age and is his only friend, aside from Celia and Tam Lin. She treats him well even when no one else will, and unlike everyone else, doesn't see him as a filthy abomination.
  • El Patrón, or Matteo Alacrán, is a 140 year old drug lord who specializes in opium. He runs a country called Opium.
  • Mr. Alacrán is El Patrón's great-grandson. He wishes to run Opium and hates Matt, who he sees as a threat to this goal.
  • Emilia is Maria's older sister. She eventually is revealed to be cruel-hearted and snobbish, showing no interest in her mother and feeling betrayed that her mother sticks up for "losers."
  • Esperanza is Mr. Mendoza's former wife, and María and Emilia's mother. She abandoned them when María was five, and is the author of "A History of Opium," a book about the atrocities of Opium. A copy of this makes its way into Matt's hands through Tam Lin. From a page in the back of the book about the author, Matt deduces that Esperanza is politically powerful. When he's escaping Opium, Tam Lin orders him to seek out María in order to find her mother who could probably help him.
  • Tam Lin is Matt's bodyguard and father figure. He worked for El Patrón because he was a wanted criminal, a Scottish nationalist who laid a bomb for the British Prime Minister that accidentally killed a bus full of 20 children instead.
  • Fidelito, Chacho, and Ton-Ton are members of the Lost Boys who help Matt escape the Plankton Factory.
  • Steven is El Patrón's great-great-grandson and Emilia's husband.
  • Tom is Felicia’s and Farmer MacGregor's biological son. He is kept in the family by Mr. Alacrán.
  • Felicia is Tom's biological mother

“Eduardo” created Matt



A strip of large poppy "farms," or plantations, wedged between the United States and Aztlán on a narrow strip of land somewhere between Yuma and Ajo, Arizona.[6] Opium is governed and presided over by drug lords, most prominently El Patrón, and takes its name from the drug cultivated there. Employing an army mostly of mercenaries, known as the "Farm Patrol," and tended by "eejits," or mindless zombie-like slaves with computer chips installed in their heads to make them docile and subservient, Opium can best be described as a dystopian society ruled by an oligarchy of certain aristocratic families, like El Patrón's family, the Alacráns. Though many illegal immigrants try to cross its vast, mountainous terrain as a means of reaching either Aztlán or the United States, they often find themselves abducted by the Farm Patrol and turned into eejits, with very rare exceptions, such as Celia, who's employed by El Patrón and the Alacráns.


Formerly known as Mexico, Aztlán lies south of the border region. As evidenced by conditions in one of the major cities, San Luis, parts of Aztlán are very affluent, while others, such as Durango, the region that El Patrón and Celia hail from, languish in poverty. While many residents of Aztlán still try to cross Opium and reach the United States, a similar number of US immigrants try to enter Aztlán illegally. Certain regions along the coast of the Gulf of California in Aztlán are desertified, and what remains of the Colorado River has become highly polluted.

Plankton Factory[edit]

The plankton factory is near San Luis in Aztlán, in the desert left where the Gulf of California has dried up. It is a forced labor camp run by the "Keepers" on collectivist, Marxist principles for all of the orphans, or "Lost Boys," of the territory, where plankton is harvested as a food source for the world's increasing population. After escaping the Farm Patrol and being rescued by the Keepers, Matt is transferred there from the original camp along the border with Opium. There, he and several of his fellow inmates are subjected to physical beatings and psychological torture if they dare to challenge the system in any way, and Matt is described by the Keepers as an "aristocrat" for trying to incite dissent and imbuing his fellow orphans with ideas that don't fall in line with the Keepers' way of thinking. Later, he plans a rebellion to save both himself and the other Lost Boys, but his plans only come to fruition after he is forced to spend the night in the "boneyard," a massive graveyard consisting of the skeletal remains of beached whales that have formed sinkholes, which lies near the factory's outermost perimeter.

San Luis[edit]

A large city, San Luis boasts a mostly affluent population, and is indicated to be a major cultural center in Aztlán. It is the location of the convent school that the Mendoza girls attend, and the Keepers' plankton factory is located about 5–10 miles outside the city limits. Matt, Chacho, Fidelito and Ton-Ton later venture to San Luis in search of the convent where Tam Lin told Matt he would find María, arriving in the midst of the Dia de los Muertos festivities. They are confronted by the Keepers, but the intervention of the nuns and María's powerful mother, Esperanza Mendoza, saves the boys from being taken away by the Keepers, and, subsequently, after Matt sees María, Esperanza recruits him to undertake the task of breaching Opium's security and gaining control of the country.



  1. ^ a b "National Book Awards – 2002". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-01-26. (With acceptance speech by Farmer and introduction by panelist Han Nolan, who remarked: "this year perhaps more than any other year obliterated any boundaries left between the young adult and adult novel.")
  2. ^ a b "Newbery Medal and Honor Books, 1922-Present". Association for Library Service to Children. ALA. Retrieved 2012-03-26.
  3. ^ a b admin (2007-03-15). "Michael L. Printz Winners and Honor Books". Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA). Retrieved 2016-11-07.
  4. ^ "Nancy Farmer". Locus Index to SF Awards. Locus. Retrieved 2012-03-26.
  5. ^ "The Mythopoeic Society - Mythopoeic Awards 2003". Retrieved 2016-12-07.
  6. ^ a b c d e "Q & A". Nancy Farmer's official home page. Retrieved 2016-12-07.
  7. ^
  8. ^ "Northern California Book Awards". Retrieved 2016-11-07.
  9. ^ (vb2), Wolfgang Kupkowski. "Die Preisträger | Der Buxtehuder Bulle - Jugendbuchpreis (Youth Book Award)". Retrieved 2016-11-07.
  10. ^ admin (2007-07-30). "YALSA - For Members Only 2003 Best Books for Young Adults Annotated List". Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA). Retrieved 2016-11-07.
  11. ^ "Young Adults' Choices for 2004 on JSTOR". JSTOR 40009185.
  12. ^ "VSBA". Retrieved 2016-11-07.
  13. ^ "Nevada Library Association". Retrieved 2016-11-07.
  14. ^ Frederiksen, Linda. "YRCA Past Winners". Archived from the original on 2016-10-12. Retrieved 2016-11-07.
  15. ^ "Sequoyah Book Award | Book awards | LibraryThing". Retrieved 2016-11-07.
  16. ^ "Previous Winners". Grand Canyon Reader Awards. Retrieved 2016-11-07.
  17. ^ Kaye, Julianne. "Junior Book Award Resources". Retrieved 2016-11-07.
  18. ^ "YHBA - Past Winners - Indiana Library Federation". Retrieved 2016-11-07.

External links[edit]

Nancy Farmer at the Internet Speculative Fiction Database