The House of the Scorpion
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Front cover of first edition, later printing with medal images
|Cover artist||Russell Gordon|
|Genre||Young adult, Science fiction novel, Dystopian novel|
|Media type||Print (hardback & paperback)|
|Pages||380 pp (first edition, hard)|
|ISBN||0-689-85222-3 (first edition, hard)|
|LC Class||PZ7.F23814 Ho 2002|
|Followed by||The Lord of Opium|
The House of the Scorpion (2002) is a science fiction novel by Nancy Farmer. It features Matteo (Matt for short) Alacrán, a young clone raised by 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 and was named a Newbery Honor Book and a Michael L. Printz Honor Book. In the speculative fiction field, it was a runner-up for the Locus Award (young adult category) and the Mythopoeic Award (children's).
The story is set in the country of Opium, a narrow strip of land between Mexico (now called Aztlán), and the United States. Opium is ruled by Matteo Alacrán, also known as El Patrón. The country consists of several drug-producing Farms, of which the Alacrán estate (which produces opium poppies) is the largest. El Patrón's work-force consists of "eejits", humans with computer chips implanted in their brains that render them unable to complete more than simple tasks. These "eejits" act, or cease to act, only when ordered to do so. Depending on the nature of the task, eejits will continue performing this task until they die, unless told to stop by an overseer. Most of the eejits in El Patrón's control were once illegal immigrants enslaved by the Farm Patrol after being caught crossing the border of Opium from the United States or Aztlán. The Farm Patrol are a border patrol force of ex-convicts from other countries tempted to work for El Patrón with the offer of protection from the police and judicial system of their home nations.
The protagonist, Matt, is a clone of El Patrón, an incredibly powerful drug lord who is over 140 years old. 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. One day, he is discovered by three children (Emilia and Steven and Maria). Matt is so overcome by longing for other children his age that he smashes the window and jumps out. Never having experienced pain before, he was unaware of the danger in jumping barefoot onto smashed glass. The children carry him to El Patrón's mansion to be treated for his injuries. The people there treat Matt kindly until Mr. Alacrán, El Patrón's great-grandson, recognizes him as a clone.
For the next few months, he is treated as an animal by most of the Alacráns, and is locked into a room filled with sawdust for his "litter". One of the children discovers where he is being kept and informs Celia. El Patrón immediately punishes the maid, Rosa, who was in charge of Matt, gives Matt clothes and his own room, and commands everyone to treat him with respect. Matt is also given a bodyguard, named Tam Lin, a reformed terrorist who becomes a father figure to him. Still, everyone but Celia, María, and Tam Lin look upon Matt with ill-disguised revulsion, only hiding it when El Patrón is around.
Matt lives in the Big House for the next seven years. He and María quickly become friends, and friendship gradually blossoms into romance. However, Matt is deliberately kept in the dark by everyone about his identity and purpose 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. From then on, he studies and learns the piano with a vengeance, in a state of denial. In his heart, Matt already knows the reason for his existence, yet he convinces himself that El Patrón would not hire tutors for him and go to all the trouble of keeping him entertained if he were intending to kill Matt in the end, and that El Patrón must want Matt 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, who have by this time realized they love each other, attempt to flee in the ensuing chaos but are betrayed by Steven and Emilia. María is taken back to the convent where she studies, and Matt is taken to the Big House's hospital, where El Patrón at last confirms that Matt was created only for the purpose of organ donation to keep El Patrón alive. At that moment, Celia reveals that she has been giving Matt carefully measured doses of arsenic, which, though not large enough to kill Matt, would certainly be fatal to one as frail as El Patrón; El Patrón becomes so enraged that he has another heart attack that is fatal at last. Mr. Alacrán orders Tam Lin to dispose of Matt; Tam Lin pretends to comply, and ties him to a horse and rides away apparently to dispose of him. But instead, he gives Matt supplies and sets him on a path to Aztlán.
Arriving in Aztlán, Matt comes across a kind of penal colony for orphans. These orphans are called the "Lost Boys", and Matt is sent to live with them by a group of men known as the "Keepers," who are fervent followers of Marxism. The Keepers operate plankton farms, forcing the orphans to do manual labor and subsist on plankton. The Keepers enjoy luxurious quarters and delectable food, claiming that this is fair because they "earned" the right to do so by working hard during their childhood.
Matt is at first an outcast because the other boys think he is a spoiled aristocrat. However, Matt becomes a hero when he defies the Keepers and leads the boys in a rebellion against them. Matt then flees with his three friends among the Lost Boys. They struggle to the nearest city, San Luis, then go to the convent to find María and her mother, the politically powerful Esperanza Mendoza.
Esperanza thanks the boys for giving her an excuse to charge the Keepers with drug trafficking: for years, many have known about it, but no one has had sufficient evidence for a search warrant. Matt also learns that Opium is in country-wide lockdown. He manages to re-enter the country, but only to learn that the entire Alacrán family is dead, and the estate is empty except for numerous servants including Celia, Daft Donald, and Mr. Ortega. Tam Lin and everyone at El Patrón's wake drank poisoned wine that El Patrón saved to be served at his funeral. Tam Lin was close to El Patron and knew that the wine had been tainted, but chose to drink it to atone for his past crimes. El Patrón never intended for himself to die and wanted to either run the business forever, or have it and everyone else die with him. Matt, being the new El Patrón, will become the new ruler of Opium but he plans to dismantle the regime.
- Matt (short for Matteo) is the protagonist in this story. He is a clone of El Patrón, created so he can be used for transplants to prolong El Patrón's life when El Patrón's 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 El Patrón needs a transplant. Matt, with Tam Lin, Celia, and Maria's help, manages to escape the horrible fate of the 8 other clones and out-lives El Patrón, becoming the ruler of Opium.
- Celia is the Big House cook and Matt’s caretaker. Celia is the mother figure in Matt's life, and protects him from the abhorrent truths about his purpose.
- El Patrón is a drug lord, born Matteo (he later took on the name Alacrán, meaning scorpion), the ruler of Opium, and eventually, the most powerful man in the world. He has lived for 146 years by harvesting organs from his clones, the last of which (and the only one who lived) was Matt. The Aztlános call him the old vampire of Dreamland (a metonym for Opium). El Patrón is the only one protecting Matt from the people who do not like Matt, but Matt soon finds out that El Patron only wants him for his organs. El Patrón has a heart attack when Matt is 14, and demands Matt give him life in return for the life that he granted Matt. However, he is foiled by Celia. El Patrón is so enraged by her treachery that he soon has another heart attack and dies.
- María and Emilia are the only children of Mr. Mendoza, who is an influential US Senator. El Patrón, who likes making powerful friends, frequently invites them to stay in Opium; consequently, María spends a lot of time in the Big House. She's 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. As they get older, they realize that they love each other. Emilia is revealed towards the end to be cruel-hearted and snobbish, showing no interest in her mother, feeling betrayed that her mother sticks up for "losers". She presumably died with her husband, Steven, during the funeral.
- The Lost Boys are a group of boys whose parents were captured by the Farm Patrol while attempting to emigrate to the US, and were most likely turned into eejits. These boys are kept in Keepers' orphanage compounds in Aztlán and forced to work incessantly and adhere to Marxist principles, often punished for minor offenses, while the Keepers sit idle most of the time, secretly involved in the resale of laudanum from Opium. Ton-Ton, Chacho and Fidelito are the Lost Boys who join forces with Matt and escape the Keepers with him.
- The Alacráns are El Patrón's descendants. They include his grandson, Gustavo Alacrán, known to most as "El Viejo", his great-grandson Mr. Alacrán, and his great-great grandsons, Benito, Tom, and Steven.
- Mr. Mendoza is a US Senator and has two daughters, María and Emilia. Mr. Mendoza is one of El Patrón's friends and visits his daughters frequently. He probably attended the funeral and died with the other mourners.
- 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, Esperanza, who could probably help Matt.
- Rosa is a maid employed by the Alacrán Estate, who persecutes Matt upon discovering he is a clone. She tortures and neglects him for six months when she is finally reported to El Patrón. For this offense, she is turned into an eejit who can only fetch horses for Matt (who pities her, despite her cruelty to him).
- Willum is the lead doctor at the Alacrán Estate, who frequently treats Matt for sickness and injury. He has a love-hate relationship with Rosa.
- El Viejo is El Patrón's grandson and Mr. Alacrán's father. He is described by Celia as "the only good man in the house". He later dies of an unknown cause, for which a lavish funeral is held in his honor.
- Felicia is the drunken, psychopathic, and often drugged wife of Mr. Alacrán. She ran off with fellow opium farmer Mr. MacGregor, and comes home with a son, Tom, as a result. As Tom grows up, the two continuously plot Matt's downfall.
- Tom is a rude, mean-spirited boy who is detested (with varying degrees of openness) by almost everyone at the Alacrán Estate. He has specific animosity towards Matt, whom he and Felicia frequently try to bring down.
- Benito is one of Mr. Alacrán's children. He is described by Matt as "slightly nicer" than Steven and Emilia, which more or less proves to be true.
- Fani is Benito's wife. She detests her husband, but was drugged and forced to marry him by El Patrón. She frequently drinks as a form of escapism. She may have been at the funeral and died, or might have left Benito the moment his great-great-grandfather died, because she hated him and El Patrón's power no longer held over her, and she wouldn't have to leave Nigeria.
- Felipe is El Patrón's son, who died long before the time of the story's premise.
- Mr. MacGregor is a drug lord in Opium and El Patrón's apparent best friend. He also harvests a clone for organs, much to the shock of Matt and María.He is Tom's biological father.
- Sister Inéz is a nun at the Convent of Santa Clara, where María and Emilia attend school.
- Jorge, Raul, and Carlos are Keepers in Aztlan, who frequently mistreat the Lost Boys while they themselves enjoy lavish parties and the use of laudanum, a drug similar to heroin.
- Furball is Maria's dog, who is later poisoned with laudanum by Felicia to frame Matt.
- Eejits are mostly illegal immigrants who have been caught by El Patron when they are sneaking through Opium. They have computer chips inserted into their brains, which turns them into mindless, emotionless slaves. They are used to do simple tasks within the mansion and to harvest opium. Though most are captured illegal immigrants, some are people who angered El Patrón, such as Rosa, the maid who locked Matt in a room with sawdust and treated him brutally.
- Tam Lin is Matt's bodyguard and father figure. El Patron gives Matt a choice between Tam Lin and Daft Donald, his other bodyguard; Matt sees a "glint of friendliness" in Tam Lin's eyes and chooses him. Matt quickly bonds with Tam Lin, who teaches Matt to climb treacherous rock-faces and live for days in the wild. He is also one of the only people who believes what Matt says about Tom. Tam Lin is later called back to El Patrón's side and leaves Matt with a cache of supplies in the hopes that when El Patrón decides to take Matt's heart for his own, Matt will escape over the nearby mountains into Aztlán to seek out the convent of Santa Clara where María lives and attends school. All of El Patrón's bodyguards are wanted criminals, and Tam Lin is no exception: he was a Scottish nationalist who laid a bomb for the British Prime Minister that accidentally killed a bus full of 20 children instead. As atonement, he drinks wine he knows El Patrón poisoned, along with all of the other Alacráns.
- Daft Donald is a mute bodyguard who works for El Patron. He cannot speak because his vocal cords and throat were damaged in Tam Lin's terrorist mission. He was Tam Lin's accomplice in Tam Lin's little stunt as a terrorist. During El Patrón's wake, when the poisoned wine is brought out, Tam Lin tells Daft Donald not to drink. Obviously, everyone dies but him, and he seals the burial chamber off with dynamite.
- Keepers are the adult workers who watch over the Lost Boys. Most are mean and cruel to the Lost Boys.
- Fidelito A skinny child also kept in hand of the Keepers, Matt's friend who helps him escape.
- Chacho- Another friend who helps Matt escape, Chacho is Matt's best friend in the plankton factory.
- Ton-Ton is a stuttering but dedicated Lost Boy who becomes very valuable to Matt in his attempt to escape the Keepers and resolve the crisis in Opium.
- Flaco is another Lost Boy in the Keepers' care, and the oldest in the plankton factory.
- Mr. Ortega is Matt's deaf music teacher.
- Steven is one of Mr. Alacran's children and Emilia's husband. He turns out to be evil and dies in the end.
- Guapo' is an old man that Matt meets celebrating Dia de los muertos.
- Consuela is Guapo's sister, Matt also meets celebrating Dia de los muertos.
The United States has lost much of its former glory and, at the very least, its southern region has been reduced to poverty and "Third World" status. El Patrón claims that just as many people try to run to Aztlán from the United States as the other way around. It is mentioned briefly that Ireland and Nigeria are now some of the richest countries in the world, effectively usurping US prestige as one of the world's wealthiest nations.
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.
A strip of large poppy "farms," or plantations, wedged between the United States and Aztlán on a narrow strip of land, and governed and presided over by drug lords, most prominently El Patrón, Opium 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 narco-state 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 USA, several 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. Nancy Farmer says that the main setting of the story is in the vicinity of the Chiricahua Mountains of Arizona.
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 held at the factory by the Keepers after he 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.
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. However, they are confronted by the Keepers. Fortunately, 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.
- National Book Award for Young People's Literature (United States), 2002 — winner
- Newbery Honor, 2003 — runner-up for Newbery Medal
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- Michael L. Printz Award Honor Book, 2003
- Young Hoosier Book Award Middle Grades, 2006
- Nevada Young Reader's Award in the Young Adult category, 2005
- Senior Young Readers Choice Award, Pacific Northwest Library Association, 2004–05
- Buxtehuder Bulle, Germany, 2003
- Bay Area Book Reviewers’ Association Award for Children’s Literature
- ALA Notable Children's Book
- ALA Best Book for Young Adults
- IRA Young Adults' Choices
- Sequoyah Young Adult Award
- Volunteer State Award, 2006
- Arizona Young Readers Teen Award, 2005
- South Carolina Junior Readers' Award, 2005-2006
- "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.")
- "Newbery Medal and Honor Books, 1922-Present". Association for Library Service to Children. ALA. Retrieved 2012-03-26.
- "Nancy Farmer". Locus Index to SF Awards. Locus. Retrieved 2012-03-26.