The House of the Scorpion

housescorpionI finished reading my first book of the New Year:  The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer.  I found this book at one of my favorite used bookstores and couldn’t pass up such a great deal ($2!).  The House of the Scorpion, first published in 2002, is a Newbery Honor Book, a Printz Honor Book, and a National Book Award winner.

In some ways, this novel is a typical coming-of-age story in which the protagonist must reconcile his childhood experiences with his discovered identity and his hopes for the future.  However, this story comes with surprisingly intense themes—biomedical ethics, socio-economics, and geo-political borders—relevant to contemporary readers regardless of how long ago they were teenagers.

After reading, I’m pondering the following questions:  in a future where cloning is more than a mere possibility, what separates humans from animals?  When it comes to science and human life, where will we draw the line between what we can do and what we should do?  In a world of unfairly distributed wealth, what is a government’s responsibility to its people?  What is the people’s to their government?

In The House of the Scorpion, main character Matt is harvested from the womb of a cow after being cloned from the skin cells of 140-year-old Mateo Alacrán, known as El Patrón, the drug lord who controls the borderland between the United States and Aztlán.   When he is six years old, after spending his whole life in a small shack with his caretaker Celia, Matt discovers his true identity at the same time that he learns clones are less than animals, less even than the eejits who have computer chips implanted in their brains so that they are little more than zombies.   As he grows from a boy to a man, Matt demonstrates that he is intelligent, talented, empathetic and sincere.  But with his genetic code the exact copy of a ruthless, power-hungry man who hoards his wealth while his workers waste away, how can Matt ever prove himself to be human, let alone his own person?

This novel would make an excellent whole class read for a course on ethics or morality, and would also provide interesting discussion points for Mexican American history and politics.  Books with similar themes:  Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, This Dark Endeavor and Such Wicked Intent by Kenneth Oppel, and Across the Universe by Beth Revis (science and ethics); Red Glass by Laura Resau, Into the Beautiful North by Luis Alberto Urrea, and Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya (culture, identity and self-discovery, geo-political borders).

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