REVIEW SUMMARY: A thought-provoking book about cloning.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: In a future where humans despise clones, Matt enjoys special status as the young clone of El Patrón, the 140-year-old leader of a corrupt drug empire nestled between Mexico and the United States.
PROS: Interesting setting; thought-provoking issues; claustrophobic feel.
CONS: The story was longer than it needed to be.
BOTTOM LINE: An entertaining read.
The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer came to my attention because it’s a Newberry Award finalist. I wasn’t sure what to expect but, in the end, found that this is a good book.
The House of the Scorpion is set in a future where cloning is possible yet clones are despised by humans. In fact, clones have their brains destroyed shortly after their creation. Young Matt, however, is the unaltered clone of a drug lord known as El Patrón, the evil but aging ruler of Opium, the strip of land that separates Mexico and the United States. Matt’s existence switches between different varieties of captivity – from a peaceful but secluded childhood raised by the kind Cecilia, to living like a caged animal at the hands of the malevolent Rosa, to a life as the subject of contempt by El Patrón’s family. Even when Matt leaves the estate he is held in another kind of captivity as a member of the “lost children” who work the salt mines.
Throughout the story, Matt is trying to understand what his place is in society. On the one hand, just about everyone he comes in contact with treats him worse than an animal. The only exceptions are Cecilia the cook, and Tam Lin, one of El Patrón’s bodyguards. If clones are so despised by everyone, why is it done? The chilling answer to that question is one of the mysteries that Matt must solve.
For more than half the book, the story takes place on the estate of El Patrón. This gave the text a wonderfully claustrophobic feel. Along the way we meet members of the family, most of who tolerate Matt out of fear that El Patrón will punish them or, worse, turn them into one of the “eejits” that work the opium fields. (Eejits are people who have a brain implant that makes them subservient and ably to perform only menial tasks, hence the play on the word “idiot”.) The motives of the characters are not always clear to Matt whose understanding of people is severely limited due to his secluded upbringing. Even Matt himself is not a clear cut sympathetic victim as he experiments with people’s fears and becomes like a mini-Patrón. For the most part, though, Matt is trying to unravel just why he exists and where he fits in.
The story successfully integrates some heavy themes associated with cloning such as what it means to human, civil rights, etc., enough so as to make this more thought-provoking than your average read. Wisely, instead of focusing on the drug dealing business, the book’s focus instead is on the family of El Patrón and Matt’s plight. Additionally, there are a few surprises along the way to keep the story interesting. The relationship between Matt and Tam Lin was well done.
One major gripe with the book would be that the later sequences in the salt mines seemed liked extra padding. Although a well-written side story, those sequences did not really lend much to the Matt’s overall story. Also, the character of Maria, daughter of the U.S. politician in the drug lord’s pocket, was erratic in her behavior.
Still, this was an entertaining read. The strength of the book lies in its claustrophobic setting and the though-provoking issues raised by Matt’s circumstances.