On My Honor
When Joel's friend Tony proposes a swim in the river, Joel remembers but overrides his promise to his father to go nowhere but the park. When Tony drowns, responding to Joel's dare to swim to a sandbar, Joel is, of course, overwhelmed with guilt and fear. Riding quickly home, he tries to pretend that nothing happened, only later telling the horrible truth. In this brief book, Bauer gets at honor, responsibility, guilt and grief, staying carefully within a young person's perceptions. The book is not difficult to read. Its ninety six pages of fairly large print make it accessible and non-threatening to less able readers while its fast moving plot and its hard-hitting theme make it challenging for all readers from about fourth grade through high school.
Joel's feelings of powerlessness in an essentially hostile world should give him something in common with many young readers. When Tony persuades him to do something against his parents' wishes, Joel is angry at Tony and his parents at the same time. His father should have known better than to trust him and Tony. Tony should have told him he couldn't swim. In the end, when his father accepts his own guilt, the reader is left wondering whether Joel will ever accept responsibility for his own decisions. How much responsibility is Joel's? It was Tony's idea to climb the bluffs and to swim in the polluted river, but it is Joel who suggests swimming out to the sandbar. Joel's behavior after the drowning, denial and retreat, has no effect on poor Tony, but is it forgivable? Joel's moment of truth can be used to compare similar situations in other books.
This is a good book to use in a combined parent and young adult book discussion group since the daring but compelling Tony is the kind of reckless person many young people are drawn to and the reaction of Joel's father to the tragedy could lead many parents into comparing their possible responses to his. Joel's father's simple statement that he can't make the smell go away applies to much more than the stench of the river.