Among the strands that comprise Susan Orlean’s thorough, wide-ranging and ambitious Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend are the promised biography of America’s first dog film star; a history of the evolution of animals into house pets; a shocking revelation that America had a dog army during WWII (where was that fact in high school history books?); and a determined effort to pinpoint of what, exactly, fame is composed. That Orlean takes on so much isn’t entirely surprising; that she mostly succeeds at all of it is downright shocking.
Turns out, casual readers probably know nothing about how radically our attitude towards dogs has changed over the last 100 years. The entire concept of dog training was foreign to Americans, until two (possible) lesbians traveled across country in a trailer, poodles in tow, demonstrating how to make your pet listen to you. And when WWII broke out, Americans were asked to donate their dogs to fight overseas—after which the animals werereturned to their owners.
These factoids are riveting, but they’re not the main story. Rin Tin Tin, his legacy and the men and women who obsessively kept that legacy alive over the last 80-odd years is what the book is about. Orlean takes a daring tactic when it comes to her main story: she inserts herself into the story. Nancy Milford did it first in her biography of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Savage Beauty, but Orlean makes a convincing case for the necessity of doing it, too. Uncovering treasure troves of newspaper clippings, certificates, trophies and the memos, letters and telegrams that all diligent movie people seem to have meticulously maintained, Orlean falls under the spell of her cast of characters and revisits her own childhood love of Rin Tin Tin, a dog that has gone through multiple incarnations yet remains unchanging. That, Orlean argues, is the true test of stardom and immortality. And by the time the book has ended, you’ll find yourself oddly in love with Rin Tin Tin yourself.
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