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Bait Explores An Adolescent Boy’s Rage

September 11, 2009

Bait by Alex Sanchez
published by Simon and Schuster Children’s Publishing (June 9, 2009)

Sixteen-year-old Diego McMann is haunted by nightmares. In his dreams, he is attacked by a shark which — in the blurry logic of dreams — morphs into his late stepfather, Mac, who committed suicide.

He’d be treading water in the middle of the white-capped ocean. Alone.
Stranded. With no idea how he’d gotten there. Waves crashed over him, buffeting
his head, while a forceful current pulled at him. His weary legs sank heavily,
like weights dragging down his body, as he searched for land or a boat.
Something to hang onto. Anything.

Suddenly a tiny triangle appeared in the distance between wave peaks. A sailboat? Diego’s arms sprang into the air waving desperately as he shouted, “Hey! Over here! Hey!”

But as the triangle came closer, a chill rolled down his spine. It wasn’t a sail. It was a
dorsal fin. A shark.

Diego watched, terrified, as the fin moved toward him. He wanted to scream , but his voice caught in his throat. Besides, who would hear him? He was alone. Powerless.

He took a breath, heart pounding, and plunged his head beneath the surface.
Salt burned his eyes as he watched the gray form circle him. Ghostlike. Massive.
Powerful. A tug of current radiated from each commanding movement of its tail. Only its silvery eyes remained fixed, keeping its prey in sight.

Diego thrashed the water with his hands, fighting the current, trying to
back away. His heart beat furiously as the shark moved closer, its head swinging
right, then left. Gallons of water pumped through its cavernous mouth. Rows of
teeth spiked its jaws. With a flick of its enormous tail, the great shark

But just as the beast rammed into him, the dream changed. A gunshot fired.
Loud. Clear. Always a gunshot. And the weight of Mac’s body fell upon Diego.

The dream reflects Diego’s relationship with Mac. Having been raised by a struggling single mom, he had longed for a father. Yet when Mac came, instead of safety, he silently brought cruelty and terror into Diego’s life, a nightmare that had only ended with Mac’s death.
Now Diego is struggling to keep himself afloat. He has trouble controlling his rage and is facing assault charges for beating up a classmate. This classmate, who appears to be gay, badgers Diego and really infuriates him for some reason. Yet Diego never expected to be facing a judge for attacking this boy. He feels desperately alone.

Before he has his day in court, Diego develops a rapport with his probation officer, Mr. Vidas. During their counseling sessions, several layers of agonizing secrets unravel. Diego gradually finds the courage to cope with his anger and sadness, and he is able to face the shark which, in a Gestalt-like way, has come to represent a part of himself.

This is the first novel I have read by this author, who has worked with troubled youth as a counselor and probation officer. I had heard he was a talented writer with the courage to take on sensitive issues, including homosexuality, prejudice, and gender identity issues. I was not disappointed.

There are many layers rolled into this well crafted, readable book. It introduces a funny, likeable adolescent character. It focuses on a teenage boy struggling to control his temper while having the courage to face his history of abuse and reveal his secrets. It’s also a story that delves into some of the roots of teenagers’ anger and aggression. In a society that “addresses” adolescent violence by rounding up the usual suspects — vilifying everything from violent video games to working moms — I am grateful for this honesty.
I also appreciated the fact that Diego wasn’t magically freed by disclosing his painful past. The focus of the story wasn’t on these revelations but on his slippery journey to healing. During this journey, he vacillated between courage and immaturity, acceptance and rage. He often had to take a few steps forward and a few steps back. There is a definite ring of truth to that.
I was also impressed by the fact that the book probed some of the underlying reasons for homophobia, which I understand is an important theme in much of this author’s work. In an honest, nonjudgmental way, he touched on some of the reasons men and boys react so irrationally to gay males, whether it be a past history of sexual abuse by a man or frightening questions and confusion about one’s own masculinity and sexuality. This is an issue I would love to see teens discuss honestly, whether among themselves, at home, or in a classroom.
On one level, I enjoyed this book because it offered a well-crafted character and explored important issues honestly. Although there were moments, during the therapy scenes, when I felt like I was inside the author’s head instead of the character’s, losing a bit of the believability for a moment, this one of the best novels for young adults I have seen.
I also found it to be a lovely work of fiction that vividly recreates what it’s like to be on the shore of the Gulf of Mexico and is rich with metaphor. As my daughter has pointed out, symbolism tends to be less subtle in books for young adults. For example, the meaning of the shark image, described above, is more obvious than what one might find in an adult novel. I believe this offers a fertile opportunity for teenagers to explore figurative language and layers of meaning in a story, without making it impossibly difficult.
I think this is an excellent book for mature teens and adults, with a wealth of opportunities for meaningful discussions. However, due to some disturbing content — including a suicide and a fairly graphic, through brief, description of a rape, it might not be suitable for young teenagers. I do think it might be therapeutic for adolescents who are recovering from abuse, though he should have the support of a trusted adult while reading it.

If you’ve read this novel, or others by this author, I’d love to hear what you think. Read another review of this book here.


One Comment leave one →
  1. March 16, 2011 11:13 pm

    in death, the abuser was still controlling his victim. When Diego turned violent it was as if he morphed for a few seconds into someone else, “unable to control himself”. The theme of the story is control, and that is you can not except problems from your past and move on, you have created a jail for yourself.

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