Tuesday, January 15, 2008

All in the Family: The House of the Scorpion

High-school concepts, 8th-grade vocabulary

How does the practice of cloning impact those who practice it? In Nancy Farmer's well-written exploration, The House of the Scorpion, Matt is the clone of a rich landlord. In this society, cloning for spare parts and life extension is a common practice for those who can afford it. Most clones are effectively lobotomized in infancy, and are never aware of their fate, but El Patron Matteo Alacran, Matt's owner/father, has chosen to leave Matt's intellect intact.

So on one level, this is the story of a young man coming of age as a commodity. Matt deals with the shifts and changes in his status, never quite a sibling in the wealthy household of El Patron, but not a servant either; neither a son nor quite a slave. Matt struggles against his destiny with the aid of servants, and eventually escapes the fortress-farm where he grew up.

Does he find freedom? He finds an orphanage where, despite beatings and tyranny of a very familiar kind, he puts to use what he was taught by El Patron. And what he learns there challenges the concept of escaping one's destiny.

On another level, the story deals with the way that using humans as commodities always corrupts the user. It is not only Matt who is used by his father. El Patron deals with his serf-like farmers as if they were slaves; he has literal powers of life and death over them, his family, and Matt. The orphans are used by those who "rescued" them, and in the end, for both El Patron and his mimics at the orphanage, their corruption enables Matt's triumph.

This novel is far more powerful than Nancy Farmer's previous Newberry award-winner, The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm, yet it is equally enjoyable. Boys looking for an exciting story with plenty of thought-provoking action will not be disappointed.