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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:
- Coming of Age Story
- Death by Newbery Medal: Alas, poor Tony.
- Downer Beginning
- Extremely Short Timespan
- Late Arrival Spoiler: The fact that Tony dies is on the back of the book jacket and should be no surprise to anyone.
- My Greatest Failure: The whole novel, Joel is wracked with guilt about disobeying his father and his failure to keep Tony in check.
- Out, Damned Spot!: Tony keeps smelling the polluted river everywhere he goes.
- Red Oni, Blue Oni: Tony is red oni to Joel's blue.
- Skinny Dipping
- Slice of Life
- Title Drop
- Too Dumb to Live: Nice move swimming in that fast-moving and polluted river, Tony. Tony's reckless habits would have lead to an early death even if he didn't drown in the river.
- What Happened To Tony's Body?
- What You Are in the Dark: Joel's decision to come clean about Tony's death.