by M. Wayne Cunningham
In the Foreword to Eric Walters book about the discovery of insulin by the University of Toronto research team of Dr. Frederick Banting and Charles Best, Dr. Banting's great nephew, Bob, advises that for the story of the life-prolonging serum to be interesting to younger readers, an author needs "to make history fun to read." That's the challenge to which Mississauga-based author, Eric Walters, has risen, and which he has successfully met.
Rather than a text-bookish recounting of the facts and figures of the discovery that "has saved an estimated thirty million lives and is considered one of the greatest medical discoveries of all time," Walters tells the story in his thirty-fourth book as a coming-of-age adventure for Ruth, a 12-year-old Toronto teenager on the edge of maturity but with some pretty important decisions to make about what's right and wrong, obedience and disobedience, and about friendship and trust.
Because her dad, a former chemistry professor at the U of T, had been killed in the war, Ruth and her mother have been reduced to pretty dire straits. Her mom must swallow her pride and accept a summertime janitorial job in the building where Dr. Banting and Mr. Best are quietly and persistently researching to find a a cure for the killer disease, diabetes, which nobody survives. As Ruth accompanies her mother to work each day, whiling away her time with reading and practicing her spelling, she gradually develops a friendship with the occupants of the building-the elderly, cookie-sharing security guard, old Mr. Mercer and the Banting and Best research duo who daily invite her and her mother to have tea and biscuits with them in their third-floor laboratory.
"Ruthie", as Dr. Banting calls her, just as her father did, enjoys the break for biscuits and a beverage, but she's as curious as all get out about the twenty yowling dogs locked away in the lab's kennels and the stench that pervades the area. And while Dr. Banting explains what diabetes is and how he and Mr. Best are seeking a cure for it with an insulin serum that must be tested on dogs before being given to humans, he doesn't completely satisfy Ruth's curiosity. She wants to know more, and so starts reading a pamphlet given to her by a member of an animal rights group demonstrating outside the building.
Her curiosity is peaked further when the group blocks the front steps with signs proclaiming, "Save the Dogs", "Animals Are People", and "Monsters Not Men". When Dr. Banting addresses the crowd and is booed for stating that dogs are not people and his operations on them are necessary, Ruth is torn between her friendship with him and what appears like the justness of the animal rights cause. Now she needs to find out why the animal rights group is challenging the doctor, what he and Mr. Best are up to behind closed doors, and what it's really like inside the kennels on the third floor.
Smart, resourceful and sensitive, she soon finds answers that turn her sheltered world with her mother upside down, forcing her to make some pretty uncomfortable decisions. How far does she go, for instance, in disobeying her mother in order to meet the animal rights group's leader, Melissa? Or in tricking the amiable Mr. Mercer to leave the doors propped open? What should she tell Melissa about what she discovers in the dog pens? And how far should she go in helping the group get photographs of the dogs for the newspaper, or to be involved in an operation to kidnap the animals? And what about her friendship with Dr. Banting and Mr. Best and their attempts to save lives with their discoveries?
The decisions don't get any easier for Ruth, and neither does the tension let up when Ruth meets a young victim who is about to die of the dreaded disease unless a cure is found imminently. In the end Ruth makes her decisions but not without a lot of searing soul-searching and weighing of the merits for and against the use of animals for medical research.
Eric Walters has successfully integrated a set of facts and a divisive issue into an interesting fiction about a major moment in Canadian history. It should interest the 8- to 12-years-of-age crowd for whom it is written and will certainly introduce readers to both the triumphs and trials of the Banting and Best research team. It may even lead them to find additional information about the duo on the Sir Frederick Banting Educational Committee's website at firstname.lastname@example.org. It's a trip well worth taking after reading the book.