Susan Orlean, staff writer for the New Yorker and author of the bestseller “The Orchid Thief, ” has spent the last decade or so researching and writing about Rin Tin Tin, the dog beloved by baby boomers everywhere. Orlean discloses her rosebud right away—when she was a child, her aloof grandfather had a Rin Tin Tin figurine in his office, something to be admired, never touched. For her, retelling the dog’s story is a vehicle for examining life, the universe, and everything: “I knew that I loved the narrative of Rin Tin Tin because it contained so many stories within it: it was a tale of lost families, and of identity, and also of the way we live with animals; it was a story of luck, both good and bad, and the half turns that life takes all the time. It was a story of war as well as a story of amusement. It was an account of how we create heroes and what we want from them. It laid out, through the story of Rin Tin Tin, the whole range of devotion—to ideas and to a companion—as well as the pure, half-magical devotion an animal can have to a person.” It should be noted that affection or even knowledge of Rin Tin Tin television, movies, comics or radio shows are unrequired for appreciation of “Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend.” What’s really wonderful about her narrative is how she uses the story of this dog actor to frame the history of the last hundred years. For example, Lee Duncan, a milquetoast American soldier in WWI, discovered the dog in a battle-ravaged kennel in France with its mother, and being something of an orphan himself, was immediately drawn to the beleaguered animals. Duncan then returns to the States and takes his dog to a burgeoning Hollywood, where Rin Tin Tin becomes a star in early silent films. Along the way, Orlean explains how the breed of German Shepherds came to fruition in Europe, how dogs were used as service animals in the war, and the evolving view of animals as pets in the turn of the century. She paints a picture of the hardscrabble world of early Hollywood and how a dog was easily accepted as a movie star (Rin Tin Tin was originally nominated for a “Best Actor” in the very first Academy Awards, until it was decided that only humans should be considered.)
The decline of Rin Tin Tin’s popularity is viewed through a lens of progressive American politics—a practically all-male show about a boy and a dog in the Wild West fighting “redskins” become less and less socially acceptable. Even the images of German Shepherds biting and snarling at civil rights protesters in 1963 contributed to Rin Tin Tin’s long goodbye (they were, after all, five or six dogs into the series by that time). Orlean seems to tire of the endless lawsuits that surround the branding of the once-famous dog, describing them in a kind of bizarre inclusion of the kind of people who cling to the idea that the dog holds some kind of immortality, if only through licensed merchandise.
Somehow, Orlean manages to convince the reader that this dog is no less than a metaphor for America, and even herself. She writes, “Reeling Rin Tin Tin into the present would not only revive his story but also perhaps clarify my own—the story of who I am and how I happened to become the person I seem to be.” Orlean is such a masterful writer, she could probably write a book about discarded gum wrappers that readers would swoon over. As she works out her feelings about that plastic figurine withheld by her grandfather, what it means to be remembered, and what it means to love an animal, the story becomes less about a dog that lived almost one hundred years ago and more about what it is to be alive. (Kelly Roark)
“Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend”
By Susan Orlean
Simon & Schuster, 336 pages, $26.99