Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend

by Susan Orlean

(Simon & Schuster, $26.99, 336 pages) 

Who is this author?

I had the pleasure of meeting Susan Orlean some years ago at one of the Hartford Courant’s annual (and late and lamented) National Writers Workshops. Three things struck me: she was tiny, she was intense and she was one hell of a writer.

A staff writer at The New Yorker since 1992, Orlean has published seven books, including “Saturday Night,” for which she roamed the country to find things that Americans typically enjoyed doing on that precious weekend evening, and her No. 1 best-seller “The Orchid Thief,” which became the film “Adaptation.” (A local note: the screenwriter for the surreal plot of “Adaptation” was Charlie Kaufman, a graduate of Hall High School in West Hartford.)

Orlean is known for her intensive research and getting deeply involved in the subject. This passionate approach gives her non-fiction a compelling immediacy that draws readers in, no matter what the subject.

What is this book about?

A dog. Well, not just any dog, and not just a dog. The book is a historical biography of  Rin Tin Tin, the handsome and talented German shepherd, believed to have been born on a World War I battlefield and later brought to Hollywood where he became one of the early stars of the burgeoning film industry. Trained and deeply loved by his master, former soldier Lee Duncan, who evidently preferred the dog’s company his wife’s, Rin Tin Tin first went on to become an international canine hero and star. Besides saving actors as the melodramatic plots of his movies demanded, the dog also is said to have saved Warner Brothers from going bankrupt. Orlean makes the case that this dog could actually act, rather than just follow commands.

Orleans tells not only the story of Rinty (as he was nicknamed) and Duncan, who went on to become a, well, top dog among trainers, but also of Hollywood, radio and TV in their early years and how they affected American culture, as well as the history of dogs in wars and as household pets.  The book is a portrait of America between World Wars I and II and into the 1950s, an examination of pop culture in those years and a loving tribute to a creature who embodied the highest ideals.

Why you’ll like it:

As mentioned above, Orlean is that rare author who gets so deeply immersed in what she is writing about – she spent 10 years researching this book —  that her readers follow happily and willingly. As the Barnes & Noble review puts it: “Neither heavy nor scholarly but trustworthy and true, she makes us want to follow wherever she leads.” Orlean is also adept at linking the strands of a story. Here, she combines the history of a single dog and his master with fascinating explorations of how dogs evolved and became “the best friend” of man, how the film, radio and TV industries evolved from mere entertainment to shapers of culture and influencers of life. (She credits Rin Tin Tin and Lassie with popularizing German shepherds and collies as household pets.) Lovers of dogs, American history and the creativity and craziness of the American entertainment industry will find much to admire about this book.

What others are saying:

The New York Times Book Review says: “…by the end of this expertly told tale, [Orlean] may persuade even the most hardened skeptic that Rin Tin Tin belongs on Mount Rushmore with George Washington and Teddy Roosevelt, or at least somewhere nearby with John Wayne and Seabiscuit.”

Says Library Journal: “This is a thoroughly researched and masterfully written work that will please a wide audience, especially those who remember this noble canine hero. It is also an important addition to the literature of cultural, entertainment, and animal history.”

 “Stunning . . . A book so moving it melted the heart of at least this one dogged Lassie lover . . . Don’t let the book’s title fool you. Calling Rin Tin Tin the story of a dog is like calling Moby-Dick the story of a whale. Orlean surfs the tide of time, pushing off in the 1900s and landing in the now, delivering a witty synopsis of nearly a century of Rin Tin Tins and American popular culture. The result is a truly exceptional book that marries historical journalism, memoir, and the technique of character-driven, psychologically astute, finely crafted fiction: a whole far greater than the sum of its parts,”  says Meredith Maran in The Boston Globe.

When is it available?

“Rin Tin Tin” is at the Hartford Public Library now.

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