“Rusty, I swear to howdy, if you tell a soul...”
Joey Banks is a walking adventure. He’s funny, daring, mischievous—and frequently in trouble. Or he would be if anyone found out about half the stuff he’s done. But Rusty Cooper knows how to keep a secret. And Joey’s the best friend he’s ever had. But then comes a secret that is at once too terrible to tell and too terrible to keep. A secret so big it threatens to eat them alive. What would a true friend do now?
Wendelin Van Draanen has written a richly layered book that offers a thought-provoking look at the boundaries of friendship and what it really means to be true.
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Joey's blood got mixed up in mine the same way mine got mixed up in his. Drop by drop. Pact by pact. And there's times that makes me feel good, but there's times it creeps me out. Reminds me.
Seems like Joey and me were always making pacts. Lots of pacts, leading up to that last one. "Rusty," he'd say to me. "I swear to howdy, if you tell a soul . . ."
"I won't!" I'd tell him. "I swear!" Then he'd put out his fist and we'd go through the ritual, hammering fists and punching knuckles. And after we'd nicked fingers and mixed blood he'd heave a sigh and say, "You're a true friend, Rusty-boy," and that'd be that. Another secret, sealed for life.
Joey's family moved to Lost River two years before we did, so Pickett Lane was his turf, and that was just fine by me. Especially since he was so cool about it the summer we came to live next door. "Russell Cooper?" he'd asked me, and I'd thought, Oh man. Here we go again. Cooper-pooper. Pooper-scooper. I get the same old thing, everywhere I go.
But then he grinned at me the way only Joey Banks could grin, with one side of his face looped way up, and teeth showing everywhere. He nodded. "Rusty. That's what we'll call ya."
"Don't stand there looking at me like a load of bricks, boy. You ain't never gonna survive around here with a name like Russell."
I must have been blinking but good, 'cause he slapped me across the face, whap-whap. Not hard or anything. Just playful-like. Then he waved me along, saying, "C'mon, Rusty. I'll show you around."
He tore down to the river, and I tore right after him. "This here's my hole," he said when we got to a side pool with tree branches hanging over it and rocks nearly clear around. "And nobody else better get caught swimmin' in it." He gave me that loopy grin again. "Nobody but me and you."
I almost said, "Me?" 'cause I couldn't believe my ears. It was the coolest pool I'd ever seen. There was a thick rope for swinging, and the rocks were flat and great for sunning. Not the kind of place that's easy to share. 'Specially with a stranger.
But I bit my tongue and filled my pocket with rocks like he was doing, then scrambled up the tree behind him. And when we were perched nice and steady, he started skipping rocks across the river, saying, "Let's see your arm, Rusty. How far can you hurl?"
Not as far as him, that's for sure. Especially since I had the wobbles, way up in that tree. But I chucked them as good as I could, and every time one plopped in the water, Joey'd say, "Nice one, Rusty! You're gettin' it!" Then he'd chuck one of his own nearly clear to the other shore.
When we were out of rocks, he started snapping off sticks. "Here, Rusty. Do like this," he told me, peeling leaves off. "Then shoot it in like . . ." He let it fly like a dart. "Watch it now . . . crappies pop up and snag 'em sometimes."
"Crappies do? You get 'em out here?"
He laughed. "Yep. Dad says they're lost, and I don't doubt it. Dumbest fish known to man. You can catch 'em with your thumb--if you got the nerve."
"You done that?" I asked him.
Snap went another twig, and he shot it in. "More'n once." He eyed me. "Hurts like hell." We watched the twig land and sail downstream. "They're good eatin', though. Man, they're tasty."
But the crappies weren't biting. Not at twigs, anyway. So after a spell Joey said, "Up for a swim, Rusty?"
"Now?" It was getting dark. Cooling off quick.
"Any time's good," he laughed. "Water's always just right."
He yanked off his shirt and his shoes and flung them down to shore. Then came the socks, fling, fling. And with a little scoot forward he grabbed the rope and said, "It's a blast, Rust, trust me."
"You goin' in like that?" I asked, looking at his jeans.
"I ain't gonna drown, if that's what you're worried about." He pulled up the rope, then backed along his branch, getting ready. "And I ain't gettin' down to my skivvies in front of you." He pushed off and swung out over the water, hollerin', "We only just met!"
Mama and Dad were none too pleased to see me soaked to the gills when I got home. And Sissy told me I looked like a drowned muskrat, then went back to painting her toes. But I ate like a horse and yapped like a terrier through supper, and everyone was surprised 'cause Mama claims I'm given to "quiet brooding."
So the next day, they let me go again. And the next, too. And the day after that. And before long Joey and me were swinging doubles and bombing each other in the pool, wearing nothing but skivvies and big fat grins.
We'd catch frogs and launch them into the river, too. Joey'd call, "Come 'n' get it!" to the crappies, but pretty much the frogs would just swim for a bit with their legs all sprawled, then go under on their own. And maybe it doesn't seem too exciting, doing this stuff day after day, but I had more fun in that single summer than I'd had in my entire life combined.
Reading Group Guide
Pre Reading Activity:
Wendelin Van Draanen uses a lot of idioms and colloquial sayings throughout her story: swear to howdy (p. 7), dumber’n a post (p. 11), rakin’ rain (p. 49), jumpy as spit on a skillet (p. 58), and frog-stranglin’ rain (p. 124). Have students use an idiom dictionary to look up these phrases and see if they can find the origins of the sayings. Ask them to brainstorm idioms they use in their everyday language and look for more idioms as they read.
1. Russell and Joey make a lot of promises to one another vowing not to tell each other’s secrets. They are honest with one another and keep their word, showing they have integrity. Have you been told secrets that prompted you to “swear to howdy” not to tell another living soul? Did you keep your word and the secret, or did you tell the secret? How did you feel if you told the secret? Did you feel justified in telling? What situations justify telling a secret you have sworn to keep?
2. Russell thinks, “People are pretty much alike. The folks on your left are pretty much like the folks on your right, and that they’re all pretty much the same as you.” (p. 23) Therefore when he witnesses Joey’s father’s anger and unfair treatment of Joey, he is shocked to learn that what he believed about people was wrong. Joey’s father is not at all like Russell’s patient, kind, and caring father. What events occur that show the differences between these two men as fathers? Do you think Russell acts wisely when he lies about his father to help put Joey’s embarrassment at ease after his father yells at him in front of Russell? How would you have handled this situation?
3. Since Joey thinks Amanda Jane hates him and enjoys it when he gets into trouble, he is puzzled when he finds out Amanda Jane did not tattle on him for buying new fish when they kept dying. Russell pinpoints her motivation by stating, “Maybe she likes you better’n she likes your dad.” (p. 32) Obviously, Joey’s perception of how she feels about him is not accurate. Can you think of a time you misjudged someone and later found out your perceptions was wrong? Or a time that someone misjudged you? How did your misjudgement of the person alter the outcome of the event?
4. Russell feels secure telling his father the truth about shooting Joey’s gun even though he knows his father will not like what he did. On the other hand, Joey is afraid to tell his dad the truth about anything. How do the boys’ relationships with their fathers ultimately shape the decisions they make? Do you feel secure enough to tell your parents what you do, even if you know they will be upset? If not, who can you talk to if you are in trouble?
5. Joey says several times throughout the story, “Life ain’t fair, Rusty-boy.” (p. 83) Why does Joey think life isn’t fair and why does Russell disagree with him? What events have occurred in your life to make you think life is fair? What are some positive ways to deal with the feeling that life isn’t fair?
6. When Sissy is caught cheating on a major test, Russell realizes that “Some times life’s more fair than others.” (p. 88) He learns that sometimes people do get what they deserve. Have you ever been in a situation where you or someone you know received the “fair and deserved” consequences of their actions? How do you determine what is “fair and deserved?” Does it seem appropriate to rejoice in the adversity of others? Why or why not?
7. Russell and Joey make a blood pact when Amanda Jane is killed, and they vow to be true friends. When Russell tells the truth about what happened, Joey ends their friendship. Was Russell being a true friend to tell what really happened? Why or why not? How would you define a true friend?
Prepared by Susan Geye, Library Media Specialist, Crowley Ninth Grade Campus, Crowley, Texas.
From the Hardcover Library Binding edition.