We get this story almost exclusively from Matt's perspective, and he's a guy who is under a lot of pressure. So it makes sense that this book has a lot of tension in it. Matt is often anxious and worried, and his worry comes out in the novel's overall tone. We see it most in moments like this:
He wasn't a clone! He couldn't be! Somehow, somewhere a mistake had been made. [...] Was he going to end up strapped to a bed, screaming until he ran out of air? (13.1)
You can just feel how stressed and upset Matt is in this moment. We're stressed just reading it, and we don't even live in Opium. He's made a huge discovery about his own identity, but he doesn't quite understand it, and he worries over his unknown fate, because his fate is a mystery. Matt doesn't know yet that he's destined to donate his organs to El Patrón.
This mystery only adds to the tension. Matt often doesn't know what's going on, so he's forced to play detective and put the clues together himself. We, too, have to figure things out for ourselves, as we tag along on Matt's adventures. Certain things are revealed to us, and certain things are kept secret. Take, for example, this moment from the opening chapter:
"Don't fix that one," said Lisa, hastily catching his arm. "It's a Matteo Alacrán. They're always left intact."
Have I done you a favor? thought Eduardo as he watched the baby turn its head toward the bustling nurses in their starched white uniforms. Will you thank me for it later? (1.18-19)
Who's Matteo Alacrán? And why will the baby later thank Eduardo for not touching it? We're left to figure that one out for ourselves.
When we think of "adventure," we always think of things like Indiana Jones, Harry Potter, and Pirates of the Caribbean. This book is totally at home in this crowd. There are loads of chases, fights, and action sequences. Matt is constantly fleeing danger, escaping a seemingly inescapable situation, and fighting for his life. Plus, we find ourselves on the edges of our seats quite a lot, which is a surefire sign of the Adventure genre.
This story is broken into parts that center around Matt aging and becoming an adult. We begin when he's no more than a cell in a lab, and end when he's mature enough to run his own country. Talk about coming of age. The one thing that sets this book apart in the coming of age genre is that at the novel's end, Matt isn't really the age we'd normally hope for in a person running a country. He's still just a teenager. But he has come into his own as a person, and is an adult in many ways, regardless of his actual age. So while we're a little nervous, we think he'll do great.
Science fiction focuses on "what ifs." What if time travel were possible? What if we could travel through space? What if aliens invaded? What if we could clone people? These "what if" questions are often about science and technology. And science fiction stories often (though not always) take place in imaginary futures. Seems like our The House of the Scorpion fits snugly in this category.
Even though science fiction is often set in the future, it's really all about the present. The House of the Scorpion is no different. Though Farmer includes futuristic technology and what if scenarios in her story, Farmer also asks us to think about a lot of present-day issues, like the drug trade and the Mexican-American border, or cloning. Using an imaginary future to shine a light on present-day issues is a classic form of science fiction. It's also quite sneaky.
We'd like to point out that there are a ton of other awesome Young Adult science fiction books out there. And if you find yourself ready to tackle more advanced sci-fi later, check out authors like George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, or the recent Never Let Me Go.
The scorpion is the chosen symbol or crest that El Patrón uses for his family. Having a family seal is a sort of old school practice. Think medieval knights or feudal landlords. Often, even today, wealthy, powerful families have a crest that has symbolic meaning for their house or family. So in The House of the Scorpion, the word house refers to the Alacrán family, and the scorpion refers to the symbol that El Patrón has chosen to represent that family.
Phew. We've got that part down. But why the scorpion in the first place? They're not exactly friendly creatures. Plus they're really ugly (sorry, scorpions, but you know it's true). They're poisonous, sometimes lethal. They're sneaky, and hide from view until they sting you. Starting to sound familiar? El Patrón, too, is sneaky and dangerous, and he's definitely lethal. Plus, it doesn't hurt that scorpions are known to be desert creatures, and Opium is a desert country. So maybe El Patrón has picked a creature that he thinks is a fitting representation of himself – a powerful, terrible desert-dweller.
All hail Matt! At the end of the novel, Matt assumes responsibility for the country of Opium after El Patrón dies. He's got a lot on his plate, and some rather intimidating shoes to fill, but still, it's nice to see Matt triumph after years of hardship. We're hopeful for the future, because after everything that he's experienced, Matt is a levelheaded, kind, and very determined guy. Our hunch is that he's gonna change Opium for the better, and we hope our hunch pans out.
Hold your horses, you say. Hopeful? What's so hopeful about the fact that El Patrón poisoned his entire family and almost everyone Matt knew in Opium is now dead? We can't deny – that's not exactly the uplifting ending we're hoping for. But let's be honest, it's a bit of a relief. Think about it. If the Alacrán family had continued, a new El Patrón-like figure might have emerged to fill the place he left at the top. Someone like Mr. Alacrán or – yikes – Tom. Though their deaths are tragic, they also leave room for Matt to take over, and that's hopeful indeed. Plus, let's not forget: our hero gets the girl.
Farmer's novel is set in a not-too distant future in a world that feels just familiar enough to be unsettling and creepy. It's like our own, current world, just turned sideways. The action occurs in places we know, but they have different names, which throws us for a loop. It's a bit strange thinking of familiar places as entirely new countries, with names like Opium and Aztlán.
It's not until later that we learn that Opium is actually the American Southwest, Arizona specifically (a spot Nancy Farmer is quite familiar with, in fact.) In the beginning of the novel, we're just as confused as Matt when it comes to geography. Luckily, Matt stumbles upon a book, A History of Opium, that reveals some interesting information about his home country:
The MacGregors ruled the land near San Diego, and the Alacráns had a vast empire stretching from central California all across Arizona and into New Mexico.
Gradually, Opium changed from a no-man's-land to a real country. And its supreme leader, dictator, and fuhrer was Matteo Alacrán. (17.22-23)
We learn, along with Matt, that Opium is a country owned by drug lords (the MacGregors and the Alacráns mentioned above) sandwiched between the United States and Aztlán. Elsewhere, we gather that Opium is a dry, desolate place. The only plants that grow are opium and the expensive landscaping that surrounds El Patrón's house. When Matt looks out the window of his childhood house, he sees, "fields of white poppies stretched all the way to the shadowy hills. The whiteness hurt his eyes, and so he had turned from them with relief to the cool darkness inside" (2.11). That's about it – white poppies and shadowy hills.
Aside from El Patrón's estate, there is one place in Opium that gives Matt a nice, green break from all that desert. Tam Lin shows Matt a secret oasis, and from the way it's described, we wouldn't mind having an oasis of our own:
Creosote bushes and paloverde trees framed a small, narrow valley, and in the center of this was a pool of water. At the far end, Matt saw an enormous grapevine sprawled over a manmade trellis. In the water itself, Matt saw shoals of little brown fish that darted away from his shadow. (8.36)
The oasis is a lush place, filled with water and trees and signs of life, and it's here in this oasis that Matt learns some hard truths about Opium and its inhabitants. It's where he first begins to grow up, because here, he can truly be himself. Elsewhere in dry, miserable Opium, El Patrón rules with an iron fist. But here, in his oasis, Matt can retreat beneath the cover of the leaves and let his mind be free.
Anything has to be better than Opium, right? Wrong.
When Matt escapes Opium, he crosses the border into Aztlán, formerly known as Mexico. Aztlán, we learn, is a communist state (you can read more about communism here). Right off the bat, we can see that it's definitely not a cheerful place. In fact, its bleak, industrial scenes seem to come right out a Dickens novel (like Oliver Twist). In Matt's Aztlán, poor boys struggle to survive in what basically amounts to a prison work camp. Plus, as in Opium, things in Aztlán are dry, desolate, and dying:
Matt and Chacho walked over a landscape even more desolate than the area near the saltworks. There, if it rained, a few stunted weeds struggled to the surface. Here there was nothing except white patches of salt. Seashells dotted the surface, evidence of the living sea that had once stretched from horizon to horizon. (30.12)
Honestly, Aztlán seems a lot like Opium, only instead of the iron fist El Patrón, Matt must contend with the iron fist of the Keepers. Plus, we learn that Aztlán is suffering from a bad economy (we can definitely relate to that), so many of its citizens are struggling to get by.
But like Opium, Aztlán also has a place of refuge for Matt: the convent he escapes to when he flees the Keepers. There he finds safety, familiar faces, and freedom from the harsh rule of the Keepers.
There is one person who likes both these places (shocking, we know), and that's El Patrón. He's obsessed with his past in Aztlán, which, when he lived there, was still known as Mexico. He wants to recreate that past in Opium, so he keeps his country a hundred years behind the times:
"Opium, as much as possible, is the way things were in El Patrón's youth. Celia cooks on wooden fire, the rooms aren't air-conditioned, the fields are harvested by people, not machines." (24.47)
When Matt makes this discovery, it's a shocking moment, for him and for us. When Matt arrives in Aztlán, which has progressed far beyond Opium, he's blown away by all the technology, like hover-cars. Suddenly, all that cloning business makes much more sense and the true contrast between Opium and Aztlán is revealed.
There are a lot of aspects of the setting that relate directly to US History and current events. We've already mentioned the links to communism, but what else is there? There are a bunch of super-hot topics involved in The House of the Scorpion. We won't go into these issues in detail, but it's important to keep them at the front of your mind while you're reading. We're pretty sure Nancy Farmer was thinking about them while writing. So here's our list. Tell us, what did we miss?
The House of the Scorpion is a very entertaining novel, that's for sure. But it's also very complicated . Farmer's book features a lot of big issues such as cloning, the drug trade, communism, economic decline, border crossing, and bullying. Plus, there's the fact that this book takes place in the future, where things are unfamiliar. Things in this book range from the fairly common (like two teenagers having their first romance) to the totally bizarre (clones are grown in cows?!). With all this stuff going on, you have to read pretty carefully in order to catch everything Farmer puts in. This novel is also pretty long, so it takes a time commitment to get through it. It's definitely an addictive read, though. If you're already a fan of sci-fi, you'll probably get into it quickly. And if you aren't a sci-fi fan, this one just might convert you.
Farmer's style is very imaginative, and why wouldn't it be? It is sci-fi, after all. The House of the Scorpion is loaded with awesome details and powerful images. The novel's descriptive style allows us to fully imagine the settings, characters, and events. Plus, we learn much more about what's going on from particularly vivid descriptions, like this one, when Matt first meets El Patrón:
There was something so right about the way the old man looked. His eyes were a good color. Matt didn't know why it was good, only that it was. El Patrón's face seemed oddly familiar, and his hands – thin and blue-veined – had a shape that appealed to Matt in some deep way. (6.42)
Through Matt's eyes, we can see El Patrón's thin, veined hands, his good-colored eyes. Immediately, we understand not only that El Patrón is old, but that Matt is drawn to him.
Farmer isn't afraid to be a wee bit of a drama queen, either. She's cool with delving deep into her characters' emotions, and really letting them loose on the page, as she does here, when Matt experiences a moment of frustration in his lessons:
"I'm a bad clone! And I hate counting and I hate you!" He grabbed Teacher's carefully arranged apples and hurled them every which way. He threw the crayons on the floor, and when she tried to pick them up, he shoved her as hard as he could. Then he sat on the floor and burst into tears. (7.68)
Matt, buddy, you're being a little intense, don't you think? Precisely the point. We know exactly just how angry Matt is because Farmer won't let us ignore it. She gives us a lengthy play-by-play of exactly how he reacts in this moment, and while we think he's being a tad melodramatic, we'll cut him some slack because we're too busy enjoying the details.
And it's this attention to detail that also gives this novel its suspense. Farmer is sure to include tiny details here and there that give us a hint about what's really going down. But she doesn't draw back the curtain all the way until we, and Matt are ready. The novel's structure is meant to keep us in the dark – like when Matt becomes ill in Chapter 20. We know something's up, but we're not quite sure what – until the moment is right. These tiny, mysterious details certainly kept us turning the page. Did they have the same effect on you?
He'd looked out the window where fields of white poppies stretched all the way to the shadowy hills. The whiteness hurt his eyes, and so he turned from them with relief to the cool darkness inside.
The poppy fields weren't completely deserted. Now and then he saw horses – he knew them from picture books – walking between the rows of white flowers. (2.11-12)
Our first glimpse of Opium and what do we get? Flowers. Sounds pretty enough. But these flowers are also sinister, even scary. This is the only view from Matt's window, and though at first glance it seems beautiful, it ends up hurting his eyes. They're beautiful, but dangerous. He's forced to retreat back into his cozy home with Celia.
The flowers aren't the only things that are appealing at first, only to later become menacing. El Patrón, too, at first meeting, seems like the kind of guy we'd all want to hang around. But he's dark, dangerous, and deadly. Remember, appearances in Opium can be quite deceiving.
Water water everywhere! Or... not.
Water is a strong presence in this book, but for a weird reason. We notice it because in this world, it hardly seems to exist. Matt's adventures take place in desert climates, where water is often scarce. That lack of water makes for some dangerous places, like the boneyard. Let's read the narrator's description:
It was the strangest thing he'd ever seen. They came up a slight rise and looked out over a deep chasm. It was filled from side to side with bones. (30.14)
Not to mention, we learn that this area used to be a sea, which Matt realizes when he sees old shells scattered about. So the place where Matt almost meets his end is a place where many others, including sea creatures, have met theirs. He's thirsty, and so, we imagine, are all the others who died out there.
Opium, too, is a grave for hundreds and hundreds of eejits, many of whom died of thirst in the fields. Matt sees this firsthand, when the narrator tells us, "The man we saw on the ground probably lagged behind the other workers and didn't hear the foreman tell them to stop. He might have worked all night, getting thirstier and thirstier" (8.72).
While Opium teems with the life of its flowers, it's really a barren wasteland, filled with death. This eejit dies of thirst, but not for a lack of water. After all, in a place where flowers grow, shouldn't water be abundant? Instead, he dies because of a lack of compassion, as no one ordered him to drink. It's a different kind of thirst, but it's a thirst nonetheless, right?
And finally, we can't forget about Matt's oasis – a place that flows freely with water, which makes it a unique place in Opium. It's a safe place, a free place, a hopeful place.
Music is one of Matt's passions in life. He loves it, and he's also really good at it. He quickly masters the piano and guitar; the guy can even sing. Matt, is there anything you can't do? But it's about more than talent. Matt feels strongly about music because it's something that sets him apart:
"Funny, I never thought of El Patrón as being musical."
Matt's heart was beating wildly. Was he going to be barred from the room?
"If you're musical, he must be," said [Tam Lin]. "But I guess he never had time to study." (9.43-45)
While Tam Lin assumes that Matt's talent in music means that El Patrón must somehow be talented, too, this is the first time we see Matt as different from El Patrón in a real way. El Patrón never explored any musical talent, so by loving and excelling at it, Matt makes it clear that he's an individual person, not a mere copy.
Let's face it: Matt is dismissed and ignored because he's a clone. Everyone assumes he's less than human, and even the people who love him worry that he might turn out to be exactly as bad as El Patrón. He's got the man's DNA.
But music shows just how different Matt is. Our narrator tells us, "The ability to create music filled him with a joy too large to contain. He forgot where he was. He forgot he was a clone. The music made up for everything – the silent contempt of the servants, Steven's and Emilia's snubs, Tom's hatred" (9.42).
We've got a theory we'd like to try out on you, so tell us what you think. Ready? Okay here it comes: Music is another oasis for Matt. When he's playing the piano, he can express himself and his joy. He can forget the troubles of being El Patrón's copy and be his own boy.
The plankton factory, where Matt and the other Lost Boys work, is a bizarre place for sure. Apparently plankton is the hot new food in Aztlán (um, ew?), and the factory is where they harvest it. The Keeper in charge, Carlos, thinks is the cat's meow, and tells Matt, "Plankton is the eighth wonder of the world. It's full of protein, vitamins, and roughage. It's got everything a whale needs to be happy and everything people need too" (28.35). Sure thing, Carlos. We've always wanted to share a meal with a whale.
Carlos might love plankton, but no one else seems to, particularly the Lost Boys who are forced to work at the factory. Plankton is described as the equivalent of gruel, or a gross sort of oatmeal – "It was sticky and crunchy at the same time, and it coated his mouth like rancid glue" (28.47). Yuck.
The fact that plankton is gross, though, makes oddly perfect sense. In your typical orphanage (we're thinking of those in Oliver Twist or Annie), the orphans are always eating gruel and being worked to death by overbearing adults. So when we read about plankton, we're not surprised that that's the Lost Boys' daily meal. We are, however, nauseated. Our heart goes out to their stomachs.
Plankton also helps us understand just how much of a wasteland the world has become in the future. Let's let our resident plankton expert Carlos explain:
"That's the Gulf of California," said Carlos, shading his eyes as he followed Matt's gaze.
"Are there whales in it?" Matt asked.
"They'd have to bring their own bathtubs," a boy said.
Carlos looked sorrowful. "There used to be whales. Once this whole area was covered by water." (28.49-52)
According to Carlos, whales used to eat the plankton in the Gulf when the water was still clean. Only now the Gulf is a polluted mess (thanks in part to toxins from Opium) and the whales are all dead, and whatever plankton does grow in the Gulf probably isn't safe to eat. So humans have to make it themselves in a factory. Where'd all the other food go? Honestly, we're not quite sure, but we're betting that Aztlán's typical food sources are just as polluted as the Gulf. In this sense, plankton shows us just how changed and damaged this future world is. Residents of Aztlán are forced to make their own disgusting food from disgusting sources. We certainly hope we won't be forced to eat plankton anytime soon. Reduce, reuse, recycle, you guys – just in case!
El Patrón likes his stuff, and it's not hard to understand why. The more stuff he has, the more powerful and important he seems. He even decides to be buried with all his "belongings," including the people he owned and controlled, like some pathetic, materialistic old king.
But not every character is as greedy as El Patrón. Celia, for one, has just a few prized possessions, including her chipped Virgin Mary statue, which "she had brought […] with her all the way from her village in Aztlán. The Virgin's robe was slightly chipped, which Celia disguised with a spray of artificial flowers" (2.80). The statue isn't much to look at, but it's got sentimental value for Celia. We'd like to think that instead of hoarding it after death, Celia will pass it on to Matt, so she can pass on those memories. She's got the right attitude when it comes to stuff: don't value everything; value things with meaning.
Unfortunately, the meaning of material belongings can sometimes be a bit foggy. It takes Matt a while to understand what's important, because El Patrón's greedy ways have had an impact on our hero. When El Patrón gives him a gift, the narrator tells us, "Matt was too old for such things, but he knew that the [toy] car had been very expensive and therefore El Patrón loved him very much" (11.64). At this point, Matt's still a pretty young dude (despite what he may think), and he thinks that El Patrón loves him simply because he bought him a pricey toy. In Matt's young brain, a gift equals love.
As he grows older, Matt realizes how meaningless material things can be. He leaves just about everything behind when he flees to Aztlán, and when he returns to Opium, he cherishes the items that he connects with those he loves, like the supplies Tam Lin left him at the oasis. What matters here are not the things themselves, but the people they have come to represent.
The House of the Scorpion is told in the third person, but the narrator must be Matt's imaginary best friend. How else can we explain that we hear what he hears, see what he sees, and know what he knows (for the most part)? We get the entire story (aside from the opening chapter) from his point of view.
At the beginning of Chapter 2, when a young Matt throws a temper tantrum to keep Celia from going to work, we know right off the bat whom we'll be closest to in the novel. The narrator says, "He shrieked at the top of his voice in a way he knew was irritating. Even keeping Celia home long enough to deliver a tongue-lashing was worth it. He couldn't bear being left alone for another day." (2.5) In this moment, we know exactly what Matt is feeling and thinking, and the only reason we know is because the narrator does, too. We are given VIP access to Matt's inner world. Lucky us.
Of course, getting the story largely from Matt's point of view means that we don't always know everything that is going on with other characters. Our cluelessness adds to our sense of mystery and suspense, but it also brings us closer to our hero. We learn things along with him. As Matt grows up and becomes more aware, we also learn more and become more aware of what exactly is going on in Opium.
The only times we know something Matt doesn't are when Farmer pulls a fast one on us, and uses something called dramatic irony. Bear with us for a moment while we toss a definition your way. Dramatic irony refers to a part of the novel when we, the audience, know something that a character, like Matt, does not. So when Matt is reading María's mother's book on Opium, we know more of what is going on than Matt, who finds the whole book weird. This doesn't happen much in the novel, but can you spot some other times where we're clued in and Matt's still in the dark?
The initial set-up is filled with mystery as we discover a new world through Matt, who at first knows of nothing outside his home. Things get crazy when he discovers – wait for it – he's a clone.
Matt suffers horribly while imprisoned by Rosa. Although he is finally freed and reunited with Celia, his life changes drastically after his ordeal with Rosa as he meets a new cast of characters and is taken under the wing of El Patrón. Discovering his clone-hood has given Matt all kinds of identity issues. He needs an appointment with Dr. Freud, and fast.
Matt is now a member of the "family" at the Alacrán Estate and grows up under very strange, but not totally terrible circumstances. This section of the novel is about Matt growing and making tough choices about who he wants to be. The complication here is that Matt, while in many ways an ordinary boy, is growing up to be a man. But he's a clone, so just what exactly will he grow up to be?
Matt's world comes crashing down when his true fate is revealed, and he comes close to being killed. His friends stand up to El Patrón on his behalf, but he must leave Celia and Tam Lin behind in uncertain circumstances. Will Matt survive the unsure path ahead?
Matt's escape signals a huge shift in the novel as Matt discovers a world outside of Opium. He makes new friends and enemies and faces a whole new set of adventures. But in which world will he make his home? At this point, we're unsure where Matt's headed. Hence the suspense.
Matt has to escape yet again with the help of his peers, but when he does, he's reunited with his lady love and finds safe haven. It's after this episode that Matt comes into his own as an adult.
Matt's childhood comes to a close as he returns to Opium to become the kind of leader El Patrón never was.