Wendelin Van Draanen

Swear to Howdy

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Swear to Howdy Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics. This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of Swear to Howdy by Wendelin Van Draanen.

Set in a small town, acclaimed children’s author Wendelin Van Draanen’s Swear to Howdy (2003), a novel for late middle grade to early high school readers, follows the seemingly harmless adventures of two young teen boys, whose low-stakes troublemaking hearkens back to American classics like Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer. However, in the midst of their fun, Van Draanen reveals the darker and more dangerous truths behind the life of one of the boys. When one of the pranks goes terribly awry, each of the boys must decide what takes precedence: the secret-keeping that undergirds their friendship, taking moral responsibility for wrong-doing, or protecting a friend even at the cost of losing his trust.

When 13-year-old Russell Cooper’s family moves to a small town in the summer, he is worried that he won’t be able to find anyone to hang out with—Russell is shy and nervous about meeting new people. But in just a few days, Russell befriends Joey Banks, a neighbor boy who is full of adventurous ideas and always up for a good time. Even though Joey isn’t always the best influence on Russell, the two quickly become best friends.

Russell and Joey spend their summer days making the most of the town. They relax at a nearby pond, where Joey cracks Russell up by farting under the water—and promptly gets his private parts bitten by a crappie, a small fish. They chase and catch frogs, eventually finding one so big they name it Tank. And they love annoying their older sisters, Sissy and Amanda Jane, pulling pranks on them in order to get back at the girls for their bossiness. One time, Russell and Joey put Tank into Amanda’s dresser, making her scream when she discovers it. In another bit of revenge, they decide to spike the girls’ drinks with bugs while they are at a baseball game, not realizing in their zeal that they are actually putting bugs into the drinks of everyone at the stadium.

Russell loves that Joey pushes him out of his comfort zone, and he feels special when Joey swears him to secrecy every time they do something that could them into trouble. Joey seems to really be scared of getting caught but turns the secret-keeping into a kind of game. Whenever they have one of their adventures, the boys pound knuckles hard enough to draw blood, making a blood-brother pact, and “swear to Howdy” not to tell a soul what’s happened.

By that fall, the adventures escalate into questionable territory. When Joey’s father tells the boys he’ll give them a dollar for every squirrel in the Bankses’ yard they shoot with the rifle Joey gets for his birthday, they do their best to kill as many as they can. But when Joey shoots something moving in the bushes, it turns out to be the family cat. Joey is horrified at the idea that his father will find out, and we soon learn why: all that secrecy and swearing to Howdy haven’t just been for fun. Joey’s father is a harsh, abusive man who beats his children for any perceived infraction. After Russell realizes the reality of Joey’s home life, Joey swears his friend to Howdy, worried that if Russell tells the truth about what Joey’s family is really like, Joey’s father will retaliate even more viciously.

The novel takes a sharp turn into tragedy. For Halloween, Joey and Russell decide to make Joey’s sister Amanda Jane believe that the ghost of a cannibal has been hanging around the town’s bridge waiting to eat any children who cross. They devise a scary-looking mannequin, suspending it from the bridge so that cars driving underneath will be freaked out. But when they swing the figure out at Amanda Jane’s passing car, she is caught so unawares that her fear and panic make her swerve off the road. She drives into a tree and dies in the crash.

The horrified boys don’t know what to do, but with the pattern of behavior they’ve already established, they swear each other to secrecy and attempt to keep quiet about their part in the accident. This turns out to be a terrible decision. The more Russell tries to tamp down his guilt and sadness, the more resentment and anger he builds up towards Joey. As he tries to figure out how to live with what he has done, Russell rethinks his whole friendship with Joey, deciding that their relationship was toxic from the beginning.

Joey also has a very difficult time trying to keep the truth about what happened to Amanda Jane hidden. While his family does their best to deal with the loss, he gets drunk enough to throw up in an attempt to make himself feel better.

After several days, Russell goes to see Joey in order to convince him that keeping this secret is the wrong decision. Russell is there just in time—he walks in as Joey has his rifle in his mouth and is about to try to kill himself. At first, Joey again wants Russell not to tell anyone what he just saw. But this time, Russell instead tells the truth, revealing not only their part in Amanda Jane’s death, but also that Joey’s father is a child abuser. The novel ends on a note of hope: Even though the boys are probably no longer going to be friends, Joey’s mother takes the kids and leaves his father.