Russell Cooper has a good life, with an annoying older sister and a bit of boredom. When he meets a kid named Joey, he gets a nickname and a whole slew of mischief. Joey makes him "swear to Howdy" to keep their mischief a secret and away from Joey's abusive father. Their fun ranges from replacing dead goldfish to catching a frog. But soon, Rusty asks when some things shouldn't be kept secret.
Tropes for this book include:
- Affectionate Nickname: Joey calls Russell "Rusty".
- Bittersweet Ending: Rusty saves Joey from killing himself and confesses that their prank killed Amanda Jane to the police and their parents. Joey afterward refuses to speak to Rusty, not that it matters since Joey's mother moves him and his sister away from their abusive father. Rusty's family also moves, and he decides that there are some things that shouldn't be kept secret.
- Chekhov's Gun:
- The misprinted exam papers that Mrs. Baker mentions. Sissy and Amanda Jane steal them to cheat on their civil war exams.
- Amanda Jane's car is a tragic example. She was driving it the night the boys pulled their prank.
- A literal one nearly leads to Joey's suicide.
- Deadly Prank: The boys set up a statue to dangle from a tree to scare oncoming drivers. The first few drivers are okay, if scared and angry, but Amanda Jane ends up crashing and dying.
- Drowning My Sorrows: Joey starts drinking to deal with the guilt of accidentally killing his sister. Rusty gets worried when Joey starts holding a shotgun while drunk.
- Except for Rusty's father, everyone forgives Joey and Rusty for the prank. They know it was an accident and that neither boy would have wanted to truly hurt their sisters.
- Joey in turn eventually forgives Rusty for confessing and breaking their oath about keeping secrets.
- Laser-Guided Karma: For Sissy and Amanda Jane when they steal tossed-away exam papers to pass their Civil War test, with each getting an A and rewards from their parents. Sissy had heard her mother say the exam was printed upside down and tossed, so had gotten the copies from the trash. It turns out that their teacher knew that Sissy and Amanda Jane weren't ace students, noticed they had gotten the same questions wrong, and confronted Sissy's mother Mrs. Baker about it. Mrs. Baker comes home furious and accuses Sissy of cheating and threatening her job; she then proves it by quizzing Sissy from an exam paper, and Sissy only gets one question right. The Bakers return the clothes they got for Sissy to celebrate, but Amanda Jane gets to keep her car; even so, they get disgraced and have to take a new exam at school.
- Mood Whiplash: The last few chapters of the book go from comedic misadventures to drama when the boys accidentally scare Amanda Jane across the road and cause her to crash fatally.
- The Punishment Is the Crime: The police don't charge Joey and Rusty because they say that Amanda Jane's death was an accident, and her death was punishment enough for both families. They're completely right since Joey nearly shoots himself when he can't handle the guilt.
- The Unfavorite: Joey is treated this way, and it's not Played for Laughs. His dad likes his sisters better and spoils them rotten.