Rin Tin Tin, The Life and the Legend, by Susan Orlean

Rin Tin Tin, The Life and the Legends

Rin Tin Tin, The Life and the Legend, by Susan Orlean, is a book that will satisfy a variety of readers in a variety of ways. Orlean has researched with heart and commitment the story of US army corporal Lee Duncan, a lonely young man who discovers a litter of abandoned German Shepherd puppies in rural France near the end of World War I. He goes to great lengths to transport two of the puppies back to US with him, one of the puppies does not survive beyond her arrival on American soil, but the surviving puppy goes on to become the genesis of the Hollywood and television legend Rin Tin Tin.

The story of Lee and Rinty – their devotion to each other, their collective determination to succeed, their collaboration and dedication to an unusual type of performance craft and most importantly, their profound bond – is a sufficiently absorbing and heartwarming tale unto itself. On that basis alone, Orlean offers a book that will captivate readers who are pet owners and animal lovers.

But Orlean takes that story as a starting point for examining and meditating on much more. Thematically, she muses on and considers how some lose families and familial identification and forge new families and identities (as was the case with Lee Duncan), and how some live with animals and make them part of uniquely constituted definitions of family. Through Lee Duncan and subsequent dog trainers, breeders, fans and professional and amateur curators and archivists who contributed to the ongoing Rin Tin Tin story, Orlean scrutinizes, sometimes in person and close at hand, how some ascribe to animals the traits and qualities we aspire to, and how many seek to fill what is lacking in their lives and relationships with companion animals. On that basis, Orlean offers a book that will appeal to readers seeking a non-judgmental exploration of the ways in which people find professional, personal and even spiritual fulfillment.

Eventually, the physical reality of one man and one dog, who obviously couldn’t live forever, ascends into something bigger. Rin Tin Tin becomes a franchise (a series of dogs, some blood related, some not, take up the Rin Tin Tin name), a trademark, a brand, an idealization and a legend. Orlean offers interesting and even instructive insights into the entertainment and advertising realms.

Orlean makes clear throughout Rin Tin Tin that the ideas of continuity and enduring memories and values developed in the book had personal significance for her. She is a strong presence and even a participant in the later chapters of the Rin Tin Tin story, both confirming her devotion to and connection with the subject, but perhaps also provoking the questions:  Does Orlean in fact bite off more than she can chew thematically with Rin Tin Tin? Does she get too involved in the story, perhaps not leaving space for the reader to independently interpret and react to how different players in the story – including Orlean – are variously invested in the legend?

We all have our own motivations for being drawn to a character and entity like Rin Tin Tin and to a book chronicling his story and enduring value. Susan Orlean provides a range of intriguing entry points into a still fascinating story that will appeal to many.

The following is a brief interview with Susan Orlean about her experiences researching Rin Tin Tin, The Life and the Legend:


Thank you to Simon & Schuster Canada for providing a review copy of Rin Tin Tin, The Life and the Legend, by Susan Orlean.

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  1. Pingback: Non-fiction authors as characters in their own works | bookgaga

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