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Literature / On My Honor

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"On your honor?" Joel's father said.
"You won't go anywhere except the park?"
"On my honor," Joel repeated.

A Newbery-honor winning book by Marion Dane Bauer. On My Honor was published in 1987 and is a common sight in many elementary school classrooms.

Joel Bates, the protagonist, is often flustered by his impulsive and reckless friend, Tony Zabrinsky. 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:

  • Annoying Younger Sibling: When Joel is asking his father to go to the park, his younger brother Bobby asks repeatedly if he can go in an annoying tone. Joel is reminded of "the hovering whine of a mosquito" when he thinks of his whining.
  • Coming of Age Story: Considering that it involves a couple of near teenage boys, it's a given.
  • Covers Always Lie: One of the old covers for the book swaps the bicycles the boys ride.
  • Death by Newbery Medal: Alas, poor Tony.
  • Death of a Child: 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.
  • Dirty Coward: When the couple whom were trying to find Tony wanted to call the police, Joel quickly assured them not to so he wouldn't get into trouble.
  • Don't Make Me Take My Belt Off!: Joel implies that Tony's father does this to him, but he's not actually sure. When Joel brings this up to him in a taunting way, Tony "goes white around the mouth".
  • 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.
  • Foreshadowing: Joel jokes to Tony that he would like to see him drown, as it would probably happen.
  • Hard Truth Aesop: Going back on your word often has dire consequences that not even your parents can save you from, and you'll have to live with those consequences for the rest of your life. It's a very sobering lesson for a YA novel.
  • Hollywood Drowning: Averted. While swimming to the sand bar, Joel and Tony just swim with only the sound of splashing. And when Joel reaches the sand bar first and looks back, he realizes Tony is nowhere in sight, having vanished without a cry for help.
  • Improvised Parachute: One time, Tony wanted to parachute out of his bedroom window using his bedsheet. It doesn't work, and he ends up in the hospital. The doctor says that he's lucky to have only gotten minor injuries.
  • 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.
  • Naked First Impression: Inverted. When wanting some help finding Tony's body, Joel wants to run up to the highway to flag someone down. Halfway there he realizes that he is buck naked, and if he approached someone for help like that he would make the situation quite awkward. So he runs back to put some of his clothes on before resuming his mission.
  • Never Found the Body: When Tony drowns, Joel tried to look for his body, but couldn't find it anywhere. He then asks a couple who were driving by to the same. They search for a long time, but they conclude that his body probably swept away to deep water. And by the end of the book, his body still hasn't been found.
  • 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.
  • Police Are Useless: Averted. The cops quickly gather up evidence about the disappearance of Tony in one day with scraps of evidence to back it all up.
  • 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 go swimming in the river, Joel and Tony take 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.
  • The Stool Pigeon: Bobby happened to see Joel sneak back into their house across the street, so he told their father about it. This almost blows Joel's cover of what he had been up to today.
  • Surprisingly Realistic Outcome: After Tony dies, Joel tries to keep it a secret from everybody around him. However, the police eventually find Tony's clothes near the river, which made them put two and two together. And then they hear that Joel was with him when he was last seen, which brought him into questioning. Joel tried to keep his composure, but the pressure really gets to him, and he blurts out the truth.
  • 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 likely 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.