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Book Review: Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend by Susan Orlean

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Lee Duncan, a corporal in the trenches of World War I France, rescued a military German shepherd and her pups during an artillery attack. Duncan, an orphan, “immediately bonded” with a pup he named Rin Tin Tin. He knew somehow that the dog would become immortal. Ninety years later, the legacy of Rin Tin Tin is still alive in the hearts of Americans.

“He was born in 1918 and he never died.” The dog that was to become a hero, an ideal, a companion and a caretaker also became a celebrity. Lee wrote a screenplay about the intimacy between a man and his dog, starring Rin Tin Tin. The dog became a favorite in Hollywood’s silent movies. He rode a steeplechase horse, dove off a thirty-foot pier, and drove an aquaplane. His successors starred in movies though the years. A 1950s television show about the dog and an orphaned boy adopted by a cavalry troop during the Apache wars hit the charts. Rin Tin Tin IV starred. No matter what the format, Rinty bounded across the screen to save the day.

Although rescued in World War I, Rinty became the “spokesdog” for the United States Army in World War II. Seen as a symbol of bravery, intelligence and toughness, he encouraged many families to donate their pets to the military. His legacy would have died without the dedication of Lee Duncan, Herbert “Bert” Leonard, Daphne Herford and other owners of Rin Tin Tin descendants.

Much of the book details Lee Duncan’s early years. His mother left him in an orphanage when he was six. He always felt alone, and the only balm to his loneliness was his friend and companion, Rin Tin Tin. Never forgetting his early difficulties, an orphanage was always the first stop when Lee and Rinty did publicity tours.

Susan Orlean, author of New York Times bestseller, The Orchid Thief, says that her initial impetus to write Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend was her love of animals. She feels that Rin Tin Tin has character and because of that his fame has lasted through decades. Orlean spent ten years writing the book and researching in France, Texas and California. She scoured Duncan’s records and interviewed people who owned Rinty dogs, obviously relishing the entire process. “I loved the unfurling narrative of Rin Tin Tin because it contained so many stories…as well as the pure, half-magical devotion an animal can have to a person.”

Rin Tin Tin is impeccably researched and full of details of Hollywood, television and American life. Lee’s war experience, the rescue of Rin Tin Tin, and the parts he played in movies are the most compelling sections of the book. It was fascinating to read about the 16 million animals deployed in World War I as scouts, messengers, carriers of medical supplies, and sentries. The insertion of the author’s personal reflections detracted from the more compelling story, but is a minor flaw in an otherwise extraordinary book.

The book releases September 27th in hardback, eBook and audio formats. Kudos to Marilyn Dantes who captured Rin Tin Tin’s essence on the book’s cover. The book’s text is large enough for those who watched the 1950s TV show. The texture on the book jacket is a pleasure to feel. It is slightly sticky, but it is the story within that will stick with you long after you’ve finished the read.

Rin Tin Tin and his lineage, heroes through decades of history, are the stars of this story of canine courage and devotion.

(Simon and Schuster graciously supplied the review copy for my unbiased opinion.)

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About Holly Weiss

  • Jan Caplan

    Great dog. Great review.