The House of the Scorpion

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About The Book

This modern classic takes on an iron-fisted drug lord, clones bred for their organs, and what it means to be human. Winner of the National Book Award as well as Newbery and Printz Honors.


Matteo Alacrán was not born; he was harvested. His DNA came from El Patrón, lord of a country called Opium—a strip of poppy fields lying between the United States and what was once called Mexico. Matt’s first cell split and divided inside a petri dish. Then he was placed in the womb of a cow, where he continued the miraculous journey from embryo to fetus to baby. He is a boy now, but most consider him a monster—except for El Patrón. El Patrón loves Matt as he loves himself, because Matt is himself.

As Matt struggles to understand his existence, he is threatened by a sinister cast of characters, including El Patrón’s power-hungry family, and he is surrounded by a dangerous army of bodyguards. Escape is the only chance Matt has to survive. But escape from the Alacrán Estate is no guarantee of freedom, because Matt is marked by his difference in ways he doesn’t even suspect.

Excerpt
Chapter 1: In the Beginning

In the beginning there were thirty-six of them, thirty-six droplets of life so tiny that Eduardo could see them only under a microscope. He studied them anxiously in the darkened room.

Water bubbled through tubes that snaked around the warm, humid walls. Air was sucked into growth chambers. A dull, red light shone on the faces of the workers as they watched their own arrays of little glass dishes. Each one contained a drop of life.

Eduardo moved his dishes, one after the other, under the lens of the microscope. The cells were perfect -- or so it seemed. Each was furnished with all it needed to grow. So much knowledge was hidden in that tiny world! Even Eduardo, who understood the process very well, was awed. The cell already understood what color hair it was to have, how tall it would become, and even whether it preferred spinach to broccoli. It might even have a hazy desire for music or crossword puzzles. All that was hidden in the droplet.

Finally the round outlines quivered and lines appeared, dividing the cells in two. Eduardo sighed. It was going to be all right. He watched the samples grow, and then he carefully moved them to the incubator.

But it wasn't all right. Something about the food, the heat, the light was wrong, and the man didn't know what it was. Very quickly over half of them died. There were only fifteen now, and Eduardo felt a cold lump in his stomach. If he failed, he would be sent to the Farms, and then what would become of Anna and the children, and his father, who was so old?

"It's okay," said Lisa, so close by that Eduardo jumped. She was one of the senior technicians. She had worked for so many years in the dark, her face was chalk white and her blue veins were visible through her skin.

"How can it be okay?" Eduardo said.

"The cells were frozen over a hundred years ago. They can't be as healthy as samples taken yesterday."

"That long," the man marveled.

"But some of them should grow," Lisa said sternly.

So Eduardo began to worry again. And for a month everything went well. The day came when he implanted the tiny embryos in the brood cows. The cows were lined up, patiently waiting. They were fed by tubes, and their bodies were exercised by giant metal arms that grasped their legs and flexed them as though the cows were walking through an endless field. Now and then an animal moved its jaws in an attempt to chew cud.

Did they dream of dandelions? Eduardo wondered. Did they feel a phantom wind blowing tall grass against their legs? Their brains were filled with quiet joy from implants in their skulls. Were they aware of the children growing in their wombs?

Perhaps the cows hated what had been done to them, because they certainly rejected the embryos. One after another the infants, at this point no larger than minnows, died.

Until there was only one.

Eduardo slept badly at night. He cried out in his sleep, and Anna asked what was the matter. He couldn't tell her. He couldn't say that if this last embryo died, he would be stripped of his job. He would be sent to the Farms. And she, Anna, and their children and his father would be cast out to walk the hot, dusty roads.

But that one embryo grew until it was clearly a being with arms and legs and a sweet, dreaming face. Eduardo watched it through scanners. "You hold my life in your hands," he told the infant. As though it could hear, the infant flexed its tiny body in the womb until it was turned toward the man. And Eduardo felt an unreasoning stir of affection.

When the day came, Eduardo received the newborn into his hands as though it were his own child. His eyes blurred as he laid it in a crib and reached for the needle that would blunt its intelligence.

"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?

Copyright © 2002 by Nancy Farmer
Reading Group Guide
A Simon Pulse Guide for Reading Groups
The House of the Scorpion
By Nancy Farmer
ABOUT THE BOOK
Matt is a clone of El Patrón, a powerful drug lord of the land of Opium, which is located between the United States and Mexico. For six years, he has lived in a tiny cottage in the poppy fields with Celia, a kind and deeply religious servant woman who is charged with his care and safety. He knows little about his existence until he is discovered by a group of children playing in the fields and wonders why he isn't like them. Though Matt has been spared the fate of most clones, who have their intelligence destroyed at birth, the evil inhabitants of El Patrón's empire consider him a "beast" and an "eejit." When El Patrón dies at the age of 146, fourteen-year-old Matt escapes Opium with the help of Celia and Tam Lin, his devoted bodyguard who wants to right his own wrongs. After a near misadventure in his escape, Matt makes his way back home and begins to rid the country of its evils.
Prereading activity
Ask students to write down their definition of science fiction. Then have them discuss the meaning of cloning. Have them debate whether a novel about cloning is by their definition considered science fiction.
Discussion questions
  • Matteo Alacrán is the clone of El Patrón, the lord of the country called Opium, and lives in isolation until children playing in the poppy fields discover him. Why is he so eager to talk to the children, after he is warned against it? Why is Mariá especially attracted to Matt?
  • Describe Matt's relationship with Celia. Why is she the servant chosen to care for Matt? Celia snaps at Matt when he calls her mama. Then she says to him, "I love you more than anything in the world. Never forget that. But you were only loaned to me, mi vida." Why doesn't she explain the term loaned to Matt? Celia really believes that she is protecting Matt by keeping him locked in her cottage and ignorant about his identity. Debate whether this type of protection is indeed dangerous for him. How does Celia continue to protect Matt throughout his life on the Alacrán Estate?
  • After the children discover Matt, he is taken from Celia and imprisoned in a stall for six months with only straw for a bed. How might prison be considered a metaphor for his entire life? Who is the warden of his prison? Discuss the role of Mariá, Celia, and Tam Lin in helping him escape his prison.
  • Rosá describes El Patrón as a bandit. How has El Patrón stolen the lives of all those living on his estate? Which characters are his partners in evil? Debate whether they support him for the sake of their own survival. Explain what Tam Lin is trying to tell Matt when he says, "If you are kind and decent, you grow into a kind and decent man. If you're like El Patrón...just think about it." Considering that Matt is the clone of El Patrón, debate whether environment influences evil more than genetics.
  • El Patrón celebrates his 143rd birthday with a large party. Though Matt was "harvested," and doesn't really have a birthday, the celebration is for him as well, since he is El Patrón's clone. How does Matt imitate El Patrón's power when he demands a birthday kiss from Mariá? Discuss how El Patrón encourages Matt's uncharacteristic behavior. Why is Mariá so humiliated by Matt's demand? How does Matt feel the crowd's disapproval?
  • El Viejo, El Patrón's grandson and the father of Mr. Alacrán, is a senile old man because he refused the fetal brain implants based on religious and moral grounds. Debate his position. Why does El Patrón consider Mr. Alacrán rude when he mentions El Viejo's religious beliefs? Celia is also a deeply religious person. How is this demonstrated throughout the novel?
  • At what point does Matt realize that Tom is dangerous? He remembers what Tam Lin had told him, "If you didn't know Tom well, you'd think he is an angel bringing you the keys to the pearly gates." How does Tom mislead Mariá? Discuss why Tom takes Matt and Mariá to see the screaming clones. How is this a turning point for Matt and Mariá's friendship? Why does Celia feel that Matt deserves the truth once he has seen the clones?
  • What gives Celia the courage to stand up to El Patrón and refuse to let Matt be used for a heart transplant? What does El Patrón mean when he says to Celia, "We make a fine pair of scorpions, don't we?" Explain why she is insulted by this comment.
  • How does Tam Lin know that Matt's future lies in finding the Convent of Santa Clara? Describe Matt's journey to the convent. What does he discover along the way? Discuss Esperanza's role in helping Matt gain his ultimate freedom -- to live as a human.

Activities
  • Discuss the structure of the novel. How does it resemble acts and scenes in a play? Why does the author include the Cast of Characters at the beginning of the novel? Divide the class into five groups, and assign each group a section to write as a one-act play. Take dialogue directly from the book, and use a narrator to relate the story between speakers. Matt finds order in the music of Mozart. Locate music by Mozart to use at the beginning and end of each act.
  • Have students design a family crest for El Patrón's empire. Discuss why this crest may repulse Matt. Create an alternative crest for the Alacrán family after Matt transforms the empire.
  • Read about Cinco de Mayo and draw a parallel between the history of this Mexican holiday and Matt's victory for rights and justice at the end of the novel. Plan a Cinco de Mayo celebration that Matt might have after he breaks down the empire of Opium. Include appropriate food and music.
  • Mariá refers to Saint Francis throughout the novel. As a class, create a picture book about Saint Francis that Mariá might give to Matt. Write an appropriate dedication to Matt. How might the story of Saint Francis offer hope to Matt?
  • Dolly, the first mammal to be successfully cloned from an adult cell, was born on July 5, 1996, at the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh. She died by lethal injection in 2003 at age six. Have students use books or the internet to locate more information about Dolly and then write a brief paper about the significance of her birth to science.
  • Students may wish to read about how scientists are using cloning for medical research today. Have them read opposing viewpoints regarding the issues of human cloning at www.humancloning.org and www.cloninginformation.org. Encourage them to debate the issues in class. How is this becoming a political issue?
  • Ask students who have read The Giver by Lois Lowry to stage a conversation between Matt and Jonas. Have them discuss the community they left, their decision to leave and their method of escape, the ethical and moral issues related to human cloning in Matt's community, and the releasing process in Jonas's community. Have Matt explain to Jonas why he returns to Opium, and what he plans to do to transform the country.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nancy Farmer is one of the most compelling voices in young adult literature. She received Newbery Honor awards for her books The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm; A Girl Named Disaster; and The House of the Scorpion, which also won the National Book Award and received a Printz Honor. Ms. Farmer grew up in Yuma, Arizona, where her parents ran a hotel near an abandoned prison. She spent her early adult life as a scientist, first with the Peace Corps teaching chemistry and biology in southern India; then seventeen more working in Mozambique and Zimbabwe, where she met her husband. Ms. Farmer turned to writing after the birth of her son and has drawn upon her rich background. While she does not call herself a science fiction writer, Ms. Farmer explains, "Science fiction allows you to approach a lot of social issues you can't get to directly. If you wrote a book about how cloning is horrible, it would read like a sermon and no one would pay attention to it." Her latest novel, The Sea of Trolls, was published in fall 2004 and has received an impressive five starred reviews.
The House of the Scorpion
By Nancy Farmer
0-689-85222-3
A Richard Jackson Book/Atheneum Books for Young Readers
0-689-85223-1
Simon Pulse
  • National Book Award Winner
  • Newbery Honor Book
  • Michael L. Printz Honor Book
  • ALA Notable Book
  • BBYA Top Ten

This reading group guide has been provided by Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes.
Prepared by Pat Scales, Director of Library Services,
SC Governor's School for Arts and Humanities, Greenville.
About The Author
Photo Credit:

Nancy Farmer has written three Newbery Honor books: The Ear, the Eye and the Arm; A Girl Named Disaster; and The House of the Scorpion, which also won the National Book Award and the Printz Honor. Other books include The Lord of Opium, The Sea of Trolls, The Land of the Silver Apples, The Islands of the Blessed, Do You Know Me, The Warm Place, and three picture books for young children. She grew up on the Arizona-Mexico border and now lives with her family in the Chiricahua Mountains of Arizona.

Product Details
  • Publisher: Atheneum/Richard Jackson Books (September 2002)
  • Length: 400 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780689852220
  • Grades: 7 and up
  • Ages: 12 - 99
  • Lexile ® 660L ? The Lexile reading levels have been certified by the Lexile developer, MetaMetrics®

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Raves and Reviews

* “Readers will be hooked from the first page.”

– Publishers Weekly, starred review

* "An inspiring tale of friendship, survival, hope, and transcendence."

– Kirkus, starred review

* “This is a powerful, ultimately hopeful story that builds on today's sociopolitical, ethical, and scientific issues and prognosticates a compelling picture of what the future could bring. All of these serious issues are held together by a remarkable coming-of-age story.”

– Booklist, starred review

“Mind-expanding fiction.”

– USA Today

“Strong, rough, exciting reading.”

– Chicago Tribune

“A story rich in twists and tangles, heroes and heroines, villages and dupes, and often dazzlingly beautiful descriptive prose.”

– The Boston Globe

Awards and Honors
  • National Book Award Winner
  • ALA Michael L. Printz Award
  • ALA Newbery Honor Book
  • ALA Michael L. Printz Award Honor Book
  • Pacific Northwest Young Reader's Choice Award
  • Maud Hart Lovelace Award Master List (MN)
  • Booklist Editors' Choice
  • South Carolina Book Award Nominee
  • Arizona Young Reader Book Award
  • ILA Young Adults' Choices
  • Iowa Teen Award Master List
  • Young Hoosier Book Award Master List (IN)
  • Sequoyah YA Book Award (OK)
  • Garden State Teen Book Award Nominee (NJ)
  • Florida Teens Read Master List
  • ABC Children's Bookseller's Choices
  • Mythopoeic Fantasy Award Finalist
  • California Collections
  • Soaring Eagle Book Award Master List (WY)
  • Blue Spruce YA Book Award Nominee (CO)
  • Rosie Award Nominee (IN)
  • Nevada Young Readers' Award
  • ALA Top Ten Best Books for Young Adults
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