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

The author of The Orchid Thief explores the story of Rin Tin Tin, who was found on a World War I battlefield and later became Hollywood's favorite canine star.

(Simon & Schuster, $27)

Rin Tin Tin’s rise to fame is a story worthy of its own Hollywood script, said Linda Holmes in NPR.org. As told by Susan Orlean, it began on a World War I battlefield in France, when an American corporal stumbled upon a litter of German shepherd pups in the wreckage of an abandoned German encampment. Lee Duncan made two of the dogs his own pets, though only the one he called Rin Tin Tin survived. Given that he had spent part of his boyhood in an orphanage, “it wasn’t a coincidence that Duncan was the one to rescue the pup who had no one.” But what happened next to the lucky canine certainly couldn’t have been predicted.

Within a few years, the puppy that Duncan had named after a popular French doll grew up to be the most famous dog in the world, said Rick Kogan in the Chicago Tribune. Hollywood talent scouts saw a film clip of “Rinty” making a spectacular jump in a dog show and decided to put him in the movies. In more than a dozen silent films, including 1925’s Clash of the Wolves, Rin Tin Tin demonstrated unusual screen presence, thanks largely to what Orlean characterizes as his “immensely expressive” face. When he died, in 1932, the nation mourned. But his progeny kept the Rin Tin Tin brand alive on-screen through the 1950s. Duncan himself trained 11 generations of them.

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Orlean “goes to enormous lengths to sniff out every aspect of Rin Tin Tin’s tale,” said Heller McAlpin in CSMonitor.com. The author of The Orchid Thief is “drawn to eccentrics,” and she found one in the late Lee Duncan, who bonded with his Rintys in a way he never managed to do with humans. But Orlean tries too hard to make Rin Tin Tin’s story “a symbolic vessel” for many other truths about America, said David Peisner in TheDaily.com. Orlean mixes in personal anecdotes and pocket histories of dogs in the military, but she lacks a central subject who can anchor her explorations. “What we’re left with is mostly a series of fascinating, loosely connected, often beautifully written digressions.”

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