#ANewChapter: The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer

To most people around him, Matt is not a boy, but a beast. But for El Patrón, lord of a country called Opium—a strip of poppy field lying between the US and what was once called Mexico—Matt is a guarantee of eternal life. El Patrón loves Matt as he loves himself, for Matt is himself. They share identical DNA.

As Matt struggles to understand his existence, he is threatened by a sinister, grasping cast of characters, including El Patrón’s power-hungry family. He is surrounded by a dangerous army of bodyguards and by the mindless slaves of Opium, brain-deadened ‘eejits’ who toil in the poppy fields.

Escape from the Alacrán Estate is no guarantee of freedom because Matt is marked by his difference in ways he doesn’t even suspect. Around every turn in this vivid, futuristic adventure is a new, heart-stopping surprise.

Nancy Farmer left two particularly lasting marks on the landscape of young adult science fiction: The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm and The House of the Scorpion. The former is a book I particularly loved as a child, so I’m not sure why it never occurred to 10-year-old me to see if the book’s author had written anything else. Nonetheless, I’ve appreciated reading (and rereading) The House of the Scorpion as an adult, so it’s never too late to enjoy quality children’s literature.

Farmer is an interesting author to me, given that I recently finished my masters degrees in both children’s literature and library science. In my classes, representation and appropriation were frequent topics of discussion, and the children’s literature landscape has changed swiftly over the past ten years in terms of what is “allowed” and what is not. Farmer is a white American woman, but three of her greatest successes—the books that made her name—are about the lives of black and brown children. This fact is not, in itself, a problem—but it’s a fact that nowadays would certainly garner her books far more scrutiny when it comes to her research and the ways in which she represents these cultures that are not her own (even though she may have lived among them).

All that being said, Farmer remains a first-class storyteller, and The House of the Scorpion is perhaps her finest work. (Better than The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm, I regret to inform my 10-year-old self.) So, if you’re looking for a character-driven soft sci-fi novel that revolves around cloning, I highly recommend this one.

Discussion questions below the cut!

For Educators

Discussion Questions: PDF | Word Document

Discussion Questions

If you use these questions to shape an online discussion post of your own, please link back and give credit.

Question 1

At the beginning of the novel, the cloning technician Eduardo thinks to himself, “Have I done you a favor? … Will you thank me for it later?” when he doesn’t blunt Matt’s intelligence as a newborn. Given that he knew Matt was eventually going to be killed in order to extend El Patrón’s life, what would you say to Eduardo here? Do you think he was doing Matt a favor? Why or why not?

Question 2

The House of the Scorpion was published in 2002, not long after Dolly the sheep’s cloning in 1996 proved the cloning of mammals to be possible. Since then, many different mammals have been cloned, but there are often premature deaths or deformities. Whole human cloning is theoretically possible, but so far no one has attempted it.

  • What do you think might be some ethical problems with animal cloning? Do you think we should clone animals? Explain your answer.
  • Human cloning includes both therapeutic cloning (cloning cells for use in medicine and transplants) and reproductive cloning (creating an entire cloned human, instead of just specific cells or organs). What do you think might be some ethical problems related to each type of human cloning?
  • Do you think we should use therapeutic cloning? Why or why not?
  • Do you think we should use reproductive cloning? Why or why not?

Question 3

When Esperanza’s book discusses the creation of eejits, she writes, “After all, what is suffering but an awareness of suffering? The eejits felt neither cold nor heat nor thirst nor loneliness. A computer chip in their brains removed those sensations. They toiled with the steady devotion of worker bees. As far as anyone could tell, they were not unhappy. So could anyone say they were being mistreated?

  • How would you define suffering?
  • Esperanza firmly declares that the eejits are being mistreated, but does not clearly explain how. How would you support her argument here? What kinds of logical points could you make?
  • The disability rights movement began in the United States in the 1950s, with the Americans with Disabilities Act only being passed in 1990. Part of the disability rights movement includes fighting for the rights of those with intellectual and developmental disabilities. In the United States, many people with these disabilities are not allowed to make decisions about their own lives; abuse and neglect is also a serious issue. Additionally, it is still legal to pay people with intellectual and developmental disabilities below minimum wage in certain work situations.

    Think about the ways you’ve seen people with intellectual and developmental disabilities treated or talked about. When have you seen these people treated with respect and given agency (power over their own life)? When have you seen these people treated as less than human and denied agency? Why do you think some people find it easy to treat people with these disabilities as if they were not entirely people?
  • In The House of the Scorpion, eejits are treated like livestock, as are clones. According to Steven, “The law is very clear. All clones are classified as livestock because they’re grown inside cows. Cows can’t give birth to humans.”

    How would you define a human? Does your definition include or not include clones?

Question 4

As a child, Matt is “in a rage to learn,” believing that, if he could just excel as a student, “then everyone would love him and forget he was a clone.”

  • Who respects and values Matt’s education? Who doesn’t care about his education?
  • In what specific ways does Matt’s education end up helping him over the course of the book? 
  • Communities dealing with systemic oppression often strongly value education as a way of gaining new opportunities and eventually gaining more power and agency. When do you think having an education is important in the United States in order to have a secure and comfortable life? When do you think having an education doesn’t really help people reach that goal? Explain your answers.

Question 5

When Tom tricks Matt and María into coming to the hospital, María is at first enthusiastic to be a savior when she thinks she’s hearing a suffering cat.

  • María mocks Matt’s initial unwillingness to help, saying, “That’s the dodge people always use! Don’t help anyone. They’ll only find more illegals to enslave or poor people to starve or—or cats to torture.” Do you agree with María’s criticism here? Choose any current issue of oppression or inequality in the world. What do you think is the best way to help people dealing with that issue? What kind of direct action might people take? What kind of indirect action might people take?
  • Later, when María discovers it’s a clone making the noise, she suddenly wants to leave and shrieks, “I don’t want to think about it!” Why do you think María has this reaction?
  • As we learn more about the world’s problems and especially the problems of our own country, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed—either to feel like nothing we do will ever make a real difference or to feel like we are a bad person for not always wanting to think about and work towards solving all these problems. How do you think we can try to address our world’s problems without ending up feeling depressed, overwhelmed, or generally burnt out?

Question 6

El Patrón extends his life by dozens of years by killing and harvesting clones of himself. However, his son, El Viejo, chooses not to have similar medical procedures that would extend his life.

  • When Mr. Alacrán explains why El Viejo has chosen to die, he says, “He thinks God put him on earth for a certain number of years and that he mustn’t ask for more.” If you could extend your lifespan like El Patrón without having to kill people to achieve it, would you take that extra time? Why or why not?
  • When El Viejo explains his desire to die to his son, he says, “God wants me to come,” to which Mr. Alacrán responds, “But I want you here.” People often have to face difficult decisions when it comes to letting someone we love die. For example, although assisted suicide can help those with terminal illnesses die on their own terms, some people see assisted suicide as something selfish, criminal, or against religion. People with terminal illnesses also must sometimes decide whether they want to undergo painful treatments that will likely only extend their lives by a couple months—and family members sometimes feel they should get a say in this decision.

    Who do you think should get to have a say in when you die? Whose opinions would you listen to, if any? Explain your answer.

Question 7

When El Patrón is justifying Matt’s death, he says, “Without me, you would never have seen a beautiful sunset or smelled the rain approaching on the wind. … I gave you these things, Mi Vida. You… owe… me.” Celia, however, replies, “He owes you nothing.” What do you think? Does Matt owe El Patrón anything here? More generally, do you think children owe anything to their parents? Explain your answers.

Question 8

With their slogans, stories, and punishments, the Keepers try to remove any trace of individualism from among the Lost Boys. Individualism values people being capable of independent thought and opinion. Additionally, individualism argues that the interests of the individual are more important than the interests of the group.

  • What do you see as the positives of individualism?
  • What do you see as the negatives of individualism?
  • During the story about the five-legged horse, Matt argues that the Keepers’ removal of individualism is essentially the same as turning people into eejits/zombies. Do you agree with Matt’s argument here? Why or why not?

Question 9

In an interview about The House of the Scorpion, Nancy Farmer stated, “Even when I was a child, there were problems with drug imports and illegals all along that border [with Mexico]—and we’re talking 50 years ago. This is an old problem, and I felt impelled to write about it.”

  • Illegal immigration is an issue around the world, but in the United States we most often hear about undocumented immigrants who enter via the American-Mexican border. For these immigrants, this kind of crossing can be very dangerous, as well as very expensive.

    Why do you think these immigrants are willing to take such risks in order to enter the United States? Think about what they might be leaving, as well as what they hope to find in the United States.
  • With the exception of Native Americans, the United States is often referred to as “a nation of immigrants.” However, our immigration has always been governed by laws that determine who is admitted as a legal immigrant and who is turned away.

    Our current immigration laws prioritize: family sponsorship (a legal US resident sponsors a foreign family member), employment (typically people with advanced degrees or desirable skills), investment (people who will invest money in American businesses), asylum or refugee status, and selection in the diversity lottery (visas are assigned randomly to people from countries with low rates of immigration). Our current laws also have a limit on the number of immigrants that can come from each country: no group of immigrants from a single country can rise above 7% of the total number of immigrants to the US each year.

    What kind of immigrants do these laws prefer? What kind of immigrants might these laws exclude? Do you think these laws are good ones or could they be improved?

Question 10

Mexico has been a major base for drug smuggling since the 1960s, in part because the United States is one of the world’s largest markets for illegal drugs. The first Mexican drug cartels formed in the 1970s and became increasingly violent in the 1990s as the different cartels fought for control of territory and drug trafficking routes. Different leaders within the Mexican government have attempted different strategies to try and eradicate the drug cartels: removing corrupt law enforcement officers, launching large-scale military operations, arresting drug cartel leaders, encouraging community police groups, and offering amnesty to low-ranking people in the drug trade. None of these strategies have resulted in clear improvements.

  • If you were a member of the American or Mexican governments when El Patrón suggested creating Opium, would you have taken him up on this deal? Why or why not?
  • In the novel, Opium seems to be a quite stable region, without any of the drug cartels’ fights for power that have been happening for decades in Mexico. Do you think the book’s portrayal of Opium is realistic? Or would there have been more disagreement and violence between the different Farmers?

Question 11

Speculative fiction like sci-fi and fantasy is often critiqued for the quality of its worldbuilding: how well the author makes the fictional world feel “real.” Do you think Farmer’s imagined world is complex and vivid? Do you think Farmer does a good job of delivering worldbuilding information in a way that makes sense and feels natural? Does the world of The House of the Scorpion feel “real” to you? Why or why not?

Question 12

Farmer grew up in Yuma, Arizona, on the American-Mexican border in the 1950s, working the desk of her family’s hotel. In 7th grade, she often skipped school to play with her friend Angie, an undocumented immigrant whose family came from Mexico. As an adult, Farmer spent several years working as a scientist in Zimbabwe and Mozambique, where she set two of her most successful books: The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm and A Girl Named Disaster. For The House of the Scorpion, however, Farmer returned to her childhood home, transforming the region with its tensions over immigration and drug trafficking into Matt’s world.

  • Cultural appropriation can be defined as the inappropriate or unacknowledged adoption of elements from one culture by members of another culture. Cultural appropriation is typically criticized when a dominant culture appropriates elements from a minority culture—for instance, when a non-Native person wears a Native American war bonnet. However, it can sometimes be difficult to draw the line between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation.

    For her award-winning novels, Farmer often drew directly on cultural practices and personal experiences she herself observed or heard about from other people. However, she was also a white American author using elements from other cultures in order to build her fictional worlds. With this in mind, do you think The House of the Scorpion is an example of cultural appropriation? Why or why not?
  • Drawing on examples from your own life, what do you think makes the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation?
  • The House of the Scorpion was published in 2002, while Farmer’s books set in Mozambique and Zimbabwe were published in the 1990s. Nowadays, a young adult author publishing books about a culture that isn’t hers would be heavily scrutinized. Some people would even say she shouldn’t write books like this at all, leaving space instead of authors of color to write their own stories.

    What do you think about authors who write books featuring a culture or identity that isn’t their own? When is this acceptable? When is it not acceptable?

Question 13

In her critique of science fiction published for teens in the past few decades, literary critic Farah Mendlesohn wrote, “… we have a bunch of readers who want stuff that tells them about the world, and the future, and what they can do to take part in it, and they are mostly being told that it’s really depressing, the world is going to hell in a handbasket, and now is the best of all possible worlds.”

  • Do you think Mendlesohn’s criticism of young adult sci-fi here is also true for The House of the Scorpion? Why or why not?
  • In an interview, Farmer stated, “I don’t have a totally bleak view of the future, and I don’t want to give that impression to children either. … I don’t like writing a hopeless book, where it’s all depressing. It’s not really about showing a dystopia but about showing children who can work their way out of the dystopia and find a kind of fulfillment.”

    In The House of the Scorpion, which children are able to work their way out of the dystopia? Which children are not able to do so?
  • In the United States, we often read inspirational stories about how one individual is able to escape poverty or oppression, with the suggestion that, if this one person can do it, then anyone can do it—even though we all know it’s extremely hard. Stories like these ask us to celebrate one individual’s escape and ignore how we might change the larger systems that created that person’s difficult life.

    At the end of The House of the Scorpion, have any larger systems of oppression—such as Opium’s use of eejits or the Keepers’ use of forced labor—changed significantly? Or is it only Matt’s individual circumstances that have changed? Explain your answer.

About #ANewChapter

For February 2023, the Imagine Society, the Dred Scott Heritage Foundation, and the Green Hill Juvenile Detention Center have partnered together to create a science fiction reading club for teens—and I wrote the discussion questions for all nine books! If you are a teen—or know a teen—who would be interested in exploring some classic and/or contemporary sci-fi, please check out the Imagine Society’s event page. Participation can come in many forms!

If you are able to do so, consider supporting Green Hill Juvenile Detention Center’s young men by donating to their ongoing library book drive. Librarian Julie Forbes works incredibly hard to encourage a love of reading among her students and these donations are extremely important when it comes to achieving that goal.

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