Susan Orlean – “Rin Tin TIn”

Dogs.

What a concept.

For dog lovers, it’s impossible to think about life or routines without them. Sixty-six million dogs in the United States today—but our dog is the only one that counts. He does that, she does this. They satisfy some general space in our lives we enjoy, need, desire.

Rin Tin Tin gives the basic elements of the dog story and jacks it up to All-American, over-the-top heights.

Rin Tin Tin is layered with stories and story-telling: Susan Orlean relaying her own lifelong fascination with one particular dog, turning her sharp-eyed first-person journalism on the story of one particular canine. Then there’s the story of soldier and trainer Lee Duncan and his tireless efforts to bring one special dog to the American stage. Then there’s the Hollywood machine giving Rin Tin Tin a role, a character, a part.

Soldier Lee Duncan finds two newborn German shepherd pup in the ruins of a bombed-out kennel and brings them back to the United States. One of the dogs is Rin Tin Tin. Trained and developed and trained and developed some more by Duncan, the dog becomes a “discovery” of the financially troubled Warner Brothers Studios and not only saves the movie-making company but enters the national consciousness.

Rin Tin Tin is about hopes and dreams in America. It’s about myth-making and reinvention. It’s about star-making and it’s about persistence and the power of shared experiences. It’s about the rise of movie-moving and the rise of television and, the biggest surprise to me, the history of dogs being used in war.

“It is estimated that 16 million animals were deployed in World War I,” writes Orlean. “Their presence alongside the equipment of warfare suggests a surreal fusion of clumsy antiquity and vicious modernity. Many species were involved. Britain’s Imperial Camel Corps boasted thousands of ill-tempered camels. The cavalry used close to a million riding horses. Heavy draft horses pulled artillery and guns. Thousands of mules drew carts or packed loads….Germany, where the first military dog training school in the world was established in 1984, had 30,000 dogs on active duty, and the British and French armies had at least 20,000, of which 7,000 were pets donated by private citizens.”

Yes, 7,000 “pets” in World War I. Orlean’s writing about the use of animals in war could have been a book all by itself and makes for a terrific contrast for what’s to come, how the nation could focus so much emotional energy on one particular animal—an animal that few would “meet” (although Rin Tin Tin did tours) but only experience in darkened movie theaters.

What makes a star? Can dogs be as different as people? (Dog lovers know the answer is an unequivocal ‘yes.’) Can you repeat success with a similar dog? How does one animal become a national fixation? (When the first Rin Tin Tin, newscasters interrupted regular programming to announce the death.)

“In his way, Rin Tin Tin had come to represent something essentially American,” writes Orlean. “He wasn’t born in the United States, and neither were his parents, but those facts only made him more quintessentially American: he was an immigrant in a country of immigrants. He was everything Americans wanted to think they were—brave, enterprising, bold, and most of all, individual. In a dog, even more than in a human, individuality is exceptional; after all, dogs are pack animals, and many of Rinty’s plots revolved around him making choices between pack mentality and individual judgment, an almost impossible feat for a dog.”

I find Orlean’s writing style immensely engaging. I’ve seen the complaints in other reviews that Orlean writes too much about herself—but I think this tale is a perfect vehicle to talk about her passion for the subject and how her grandfather’s figurine of a Hollywood dog could hold so much power and meaning. If her passion for the subject drives the  pursuit for detail and history, I’m all for it.  At one point, she thinks she is done researching the book only to discover a shed full of Rin Tin Tin memorabilia.  Going through the new treasures delays the book’s production by two years.

I’d recommend the fine Authors on Tour podcast for a sense of Orlean’s enthusiasm for this subject—and for lots more background on a thoroughly satisfying book.

About a dog.

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