Thursday, September 29, 2011

Book Review: "Rin Tin Tin"

If you follow Susan Orlean on Twitter (@susanorlean), as I do, then you're aware that her new book, Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend (Simon & Schuster, 2011) hits bookstores this week. It's been fascinating to watch this book work its way through the production process from the author's perspective, and because of that I feel oddly connected to it in a way I don't feel with most books (excepting those I've assisted with the research for). It's a nice feeling, and it's so exciting to see the book actually "in the wild" now, after all this time.

It's a spectacular book, simply put. As someone who's too young to have experienced even the most recent t.v. iteration of Rin Tin Tin, I probably approach this book differently from those who grew up with the television show or those who can remember the earlier films: for me it's less about connecting with a past I remember, and more about learning about something I never knew. Orlean has brought her prodigious talent for telling a good story fully to bear, and the result is, truly, unputdownable.

Orlean leaves no corner of the Rin Tin Tin story unexplored: she goes to France and locates (with some difficulty!) the small town where soldier Lee Duncan found the young pup he would name Rin Tin Tin in the waning days of World War I. She follows Duncan and his superbly-trained dog to Hollywood and describes how "Rinty" became a star. She profiles those humans who devoted their lives to the dog, and to the idea that there would always be a Rin Tin Tin: original owner/trainer Lee Duncan, his partner and successor Bert Leonard, and many other players in the story.

In telling the story, Orlean seamlessly integrates supplementary material on the history of dog breeding in general and of German shepherds in particular, of dog training and canine military units in the world wars, of early Hollywood animals and the fierce competition between their human teams for commercial success and advertising sponsorship. As much as it's the story of Rin Tin Tin, it's also the story of the American entertainment industry, from the days of the silent movie to the rise of HBO.

Orlean describes her own memories, of watching Rin Tin Tin shows and of lusting after a Rin Tin Tin toy belonging to her grandfather. And (one of my favorite aspects of her books) she offers glimpses of her research process and experiences: here, some of the most poignant scenes for me were her descriptions of how she felt as she read through the archival collections of Duncan and Lambert's papers (the latter being located in a storage locker).

A heart-touching story of devotion and persistence, told by one of the masters of contemporary American writing. Recommended very highly indeed.

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