Allison's Book Bag

On My Honor by Marion Bauer

Posted on: October 19, 2013

Newbery Medal

Newbery Medal (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Winner of the 1987 Newbery Honor, On My Honor by Marion Bauer is a short and touching novel about a tragedy that could easily happen in any neighborhood. I appreciate how straightforward the story is, focusing almost exclusively on the events surrounding the drowning accident, along with the tragedy itself. At the same time, the story works on a deeper level, in that it explores how Joel comes to accept his part in his best friend’s death.

When one tells a story in less than one hundred pages, one must be careful to stay focused on the main plot. Bauer does an excellent job. On My Honor begins with a debate between Joel and his best friend about climbing Starved Rock Bluffs, which not only foreshadows the tragic accident that lies ahead but also reveals two typical boys as the main characters. After Joel’s dad reluctantly gives permission for the boys to bike the ten-mile trip themselves, they head out for the bluffs but then decide to stop and take a swim in the dangerous Vermillion River. The action leading up to Tony’s drowning is fast-paced, and remains so throughout the remaining chapters, when Joel has to decide whether to hide out in the bluffs or to report Tony’s drowning to the police. Bauer also takes time for quieter moments, such as when Joel complies with his dad’s order to take care of his paper route and allows his younger brother to join him, but even here remains focused on the main plot. Joel’s emotions are conflicted and he keeps having flashbacks to shared moments with Tony. Through these moments, Bauer shows the magnitude of Joel’s guilt. On My Honor is a tightly-knit story.

When one must be careful to stay focused on the main plot, it can be difficult to create depth. Yet here as well Bauer is successful. First, there is the conflict Joel faces immediately after his friend dies. My stomach tightened with anxiety as Joel came to the realization that he would need to face his parents, Tony’s parents, and the police. Second, there is the conflict Joel faces when he is no longer able to hide out in his room, but must say something about the whereabouts of his friend. It’s one of those chilling moments when one realizes life will keep going whether or not you’re ready to handle it. Last, and just as heart-breaking, is the conversation Joel shares with his dad once the truth has come out. Most of us grow up expecting our parents to save us from every situation. It’s not a pleasant day when we learn that sometimes the best they can offer us is their presence. This actually is an amazing thing, but initially it sucks when we start having to accept our parents are not saviors but humans.

How does On My Honor fit into my round-up on misfit and troubled kids? Before and after the tragic accident that claimed his best friend’s life, Joel remains a good kid. He tries to convince Tony not to swim in the river, but also can’t resist issuing a dangerous dare. When Tony drowns, he considers running away but realizes that doing so won’t solve anything. And even though he initially lies about what happened, he can’t escape his guilty feelings. My favorite line is when Joel’s dad is trying to open Joel’s bedroom door, and Joel thinks to himself, “Bad isn’t something that can be locked out. Bad was something that came inside you when you didn’t know it was there.” Even though I don’t think any of us would really feel that Joel is bad, his sentiments hold a universal truth. We all do reach a place in our lives when we realize that within us exists the capacity for wrong. How we react to that realization defines all of us, including misfits and troubled kids.

Marion Bauer has written over eighty books. If you have yet to discover her, start with On My Honor. It’s an incredible read.

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

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