Disclaimer: Minor spoilers
Books classified as “children’s literature” usually don’t tackle issues on an adult scale. Dystopian societies, drug and human trafficking, and torture are usually considered beyond the scope of what can be addressed with any depth at an elementary school level. Sure there are novels like The Giver by Lois Lowry that involve complex issues like social conformity, but the level that it needs to be simplified for younger audiences to understand means that some of the harsh realities of such a world aren’t as graphically portrayed. The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer pushes the boundaries of what is children’s literature and what is young adult (or as I prefer “adolescent”) literature. While the novel is marketed as a children’s book (being honored with awards for children’s literature such as the Newbery Honor), it depicts very adult situations without suppression. Farmer treats her readers with respect and writes with the attitude that her audience can handle the material. However, I’m not a young reader anymore. From an adult’s perspective, what is the value of reading a story that was clearly targeted towards young teens? That’s a question that deserves its own post, but in my opinion, any well written story, regardless of target demographic, can get its message across to anyone willing to read it and recognizing its quality.
I promised the one person who will read this review that I wouldn’t make it as long as my Ready Player One review, so I’ll get straight to the point. The House of the Scorpion succeeded at being fundamentally entertaining. It accomplished this mainly by continuously challenging the main character, Matt, with torturous ordeals. Whether it be from his treatment as a clone (who is viewed as sub human in this world), others’ disdain for him as being protected by his “original” El Patrón, or just being mistreated as an orphan by the “keepers” of Aztlán, Matt faces numerous trials primarily due to social stereotypes of him. The torture that Matt endures throughout the novel is almost overwhelming, but it allows the reader to empathize with Matt and understand his attitudes towards other people. His mistreatment acts as justification for the nearly black and white morality of the story. While there are portions of the book where Matt sympathizes with El Patrón, the vicious drug lord who rules the Alacrán estate, even Matt saying that he loves him at times, it’s clear that El Patron and the Alacráns are meant to be the “bad guys” and Matt’s allies such as Celia and Tam Lin are the “good guys.” Despite the occasionally annoying repetition of El Patron’s backstory there’s little opportunity to explore how the country of Opium became the way it is. Instead the country and its leader are portrayed as monsters that must be defeated. Perhaps these ideas are explored more in the sequel, but the black and white morality of The House of the Scorpion betrays the fact that it’s targeted towards younger readers who lack the understanding of the complicated motivations behind the characters’ actions.
The basic mechanics of the book are solid overall. Farmer makes extra effort to utilize all five senses in her sensory imagery. The story seemed to split into two arcs, one in Opium and one in Aztlán. When Matt left all the characters in Opium behind I was worried that the story would lose its charm, but the characters introduced and developed in Aztlán were just as likable. As I alluded to earlier, the book has a tendency to repeat itself at times, sometimes to remind the reader of previous dialogue or recount a story, but it seemed excessive, especially after a story or quote was repeated more than twice. The ending was also rather abrupt. It seemed to be building to a more significant climax than was offered, rather, the ending just seemed to “happen.” It’s not terrible closure, but I will probably read the sequel eventually simply because I want some loose ends tied up.
At the end of the day, The House of the Scorpion was worth my Audible credit for the month. Raul Esparza’s reading was amazing, and I would not have enjoyed the book nearly as much if it weren’t for his interpretation of the characters. I’d recommend the audiobook if you’re planning to read this for pleasure, and I especially think this book would resonate with its target audience of 12-16 year olds. For older audiences I would still find the book pleasurable, but don’t expect it to be thought provokingly profound like 1984 or other dystopian novels. It still offers an entertaining experience that’s unique to that of a well written book, being able to immerse yourself completely in the shoes of a character from another world.