Joel, the protagonist is often flustered by his impulsive and reckless friend, Tony. Joel asks his father for permission to accompany Tony on one of his typically risky excursions at the national park, expecting that his father will refuse. Joel's father surprises him by allowing him to go, but making him promise to be careful and to not stray from his destination.
Before the two boys even reach the park, it all takes a turn for the worse when Tony challenges Joel to a race in the Vermilion River. Joel makes it to shore, but Tony drowns. When Joel has to break the news to their families, he weaves a web of lies to absolve himself from being accountable. The rest of the book deals with Joel's feelings of guilt about being responsible for Tony's death and the struggle to come forth with the truth.
This novel provides examples of the following tropes:
- Adult Fear: Tony's death, no questions. Specifically, even though him and Joel were told not to, they go skinny-dipping in the river anyway and he doesn't come back up. His death is especially this for Joel, as he feels guilty for not stopping him from swimming the river in the first place.
- Covers Always Lie: One of the old covers for the book swaps the bicycles the boys ride.
- Death by Newbery Medal: Alas, poor Tony.
- Downer Beginning: In Chapter 4, Tony and Joel go swimming and the former doesn't come back up.
- Extremely Short Timespan: The events of the novel take place in the course of a day.
- Late-Arrival Spoiler: The fact that Tony dies is on the back of the book jacket◊ and should be no surprise to anyone. Also, his death takes place early in the story, and the book is about dealing with the aftermath.
- My Greatest Failure: The whole novel, Joel is wracked with guilt about disobeying his father and his failure to keep Tony in check.
- Odd Friendship: Tony and Joel. They bonded when they were babies but, since they got older, they don't really look like they have a lot in common because Joel is more sensible and Tony's impulsive.
- Out, Damned Spot!: Tony keeps smelling the polluted river everywhere he goes.
- Red Oni, Blue Oni: Tony is red oni to Joel's blue. The latter is more sensible and tends to stay out of trouble, while former is impulsive and tends to get into trouble.
- Skewed Priorities: A weird meta example; Moral Guardians banned the book a while ago. Was it because a kid died in it? Nope. It's because another kid lies to his parents.
- Skinny Dipping: When the two goes swimming in the river, Joel and Tony takes off their clothes (as they don't have their swim clothes). When Tony doesn't resurface and Joel goes to get help, the man he manages to flag down, takes off his clothes, too, before going into the river after Tony.
- Title Drop: This happens at the beginning where Joel promises his father that he'd behave, saying, "On my honor."
- Too Dumb to Live: Nice move swimming in that fast-moving and polluted river, Tony. Tony's reckless habits would have led to an early death even if he didn't drown in the river.
- What Happened to the Mouse?: Tony's body never surfaces. It's actually just an assumption that he drowned.
- What You Are in the Dark: Joel's decision to come clean about Tony's death.