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by Eric Walters

Elixir, the latest work from Eric Walters, takes as its backdrop the story of the discovery of insulin by Canadian scientist Frederick Banting and his research assistant Charles Best. Set in the hot summer of 1921, the novel follows 12-year-old Ruth, whose mother works in the lab building, and her budding friendship with Dr. Banting. Her curiosity about the scientists’ work and the kennel full of barking dogs on the third floor make her an easy target for a group of anti-vivisectionist protesters at the university. Confused by her feelings for these animals, which the scientists are using in their research, and her loyalty to Banting, Ruth gets caught up in a plan to “rescue” the dogs. But after meeting a girl dying of diabetes, Ruth turns against the protesters and witnesses Banting and Best successfully testing their insulin serum.

The prolific Walters is an old hand at crafting good fiction out of Canadian history, and here he is carrying out Penguin Canada’s mandate to promote our national stories in their books. However, Elixir’s earnestness makes for a sweet but pedantic story better suited to educational purposes than a popular readership. In exploring the more controversial aspects of Banting’s research, Walters has humanized the man, but Ruth remains a one-dimensional character, less interesting than the history for which she’s a foil.

The book faces another obstacle in its off-putting, overwhelmingly beige jacket design. I wish publishers would realize that children (and adults) really do judge books by their covers, and may not take the time to look beyond the boring ones.