Amazon Exclusive: Garth Stein Reviews Rin Tin Tin
Garth Stein is the author of The Art of Racing in the Rain and How Evan Broke His Head and Other Secrets .
I have no cultural or historical reason to be interested in Rin Tin Tin: I was not born in the 1920's when Rinty was a silent film star; I was not swept up in the dog obedience training craze of the 50's; as a child, I was warned that German shepherds were a mean and violent sort and I should stay away from them; while I spent a lot of time watching television when I was a kid in the 60's (most of it on a black &;amp white Zenith with rabbit ears and a knob you would use to change the channel--remember knobs?), I am still non-plused by the fact that I never--not even once--saw an episode of the Rin Tin Tin television show. Why then did I find this book utterly engaging?
I remember my Calculus teacher raising a question in class one day many years ago: is math something that is created, or is it discovered? As a teenager, I found the question quite provocative. And I couldn't help but ponder the question again--though in a different context--as I read the absolutely fascinating history of Rin Tin Tin, as told by Susan Orlean. Is a hero, an icon, a star, a cultural phenomenon created, or discovered?
Surely, Lee Duncan "found" the first Rin Tin Tin. And he set about training his dog, and he made the rounds in Hollywood with Rinty, knocking on doors, looking to be discovered. But he did so with such determination, one wonders if it were the idea of Rin Tin Tin or the dog, himself, that inspired Duncan. In other words, was the concept of Rin Tin Tin bigger than the dog from the very beginning?
As the story of Rinty unfolds, we realize that his history is a clear reflection of the history of film in the 20th Century, as well as the history of popular culture during the same period. From the beginnings of the moving picture, silent films, talkies, the advent of color, and then the innovation called television, Rinty was reimagined to adapt to the changing media, and continued to find his way into the hearts of Americans.
What I find most interesting is that Rin Tin Tin's biggest champions, Lee Duncan and Bert Leonard, pursued the Rin Dynasty (there were many, many generations of Rin Tin Tins), at great personal cost. And while they got paid, to be sure, their compensation was never commensurate with their efforts. Rather, they both felt a greater duty to disseminate the message of Rin Tin Tin; personal gain was a secondary consideration. They felt that what they were doing was a service to society. That the story of Rin, and, then again, the stories Rin told, were life-affirming, healing, and inspiring, and that is what a damaged world needed.
Though Lee Duncan proclaimed Rin Tin Tin to be immortal, his downfall did come, and with it, the downfall of Duncan, and later of Leonard and others who tried to keep the dynasty alive. Did we, as a society, simply outgrow Rin Tin Tin? Was he undone by computer graphics technology, short attention spans, loss of ability to suspend disbelief, and a skeptical inability to anthropomorphize? Or did we simply heal the wounds inflicted by world wars and atrocities of the last century? Did Rin Tin Tin, who was found on the battlefield in World War I, come to the aid of an ailing society, and, having provided solace to the people, simply serve his purpose and move on? One can argue either point, but I like to think the latter is more fitting. And I like to think that the love and devotion of a dog named Rin Tin Tin helped us greatly in our healing.
There were many Rin Tin Tins, and sometimes dogs who weren't even Rintys played Rinty on television and in the movies. Because Rin Tin Tin, the hero, is larger than any one dog.
Was the hero discovered or was he invented? I think a little of both. For certainly it was good fortune that Lee Duncan stumbled upon the dog, Rin Tin Tin, in France. But it was hard work, clever marketing, and sensitivity and understanding of the larger issues with which our society struggled that made the dog a hero. Having the key to the door is not enough; one must know to unlock the door and step through.
Rin Tin Tin is a wonderful, compelling book that will have you thinking long after you've set it down. Susan Orlean has created a fascinating history of a dog, yes, but she has also opened a discussion of many larger issues, which are highly relevant and provocative. This is a truly terrific book! --Garth Stein
“Fascinating . . . The sweeping story of the soulful German shepherd who was born on the battlefields of World War I, immigrated to America, conquered Hollywood, struggled in the transition to the talkies, helped mobilize thousands of dog volunteers against Hitler and himself emerged victorious as the perfect family-friendly icon of cold war gunslinging, thanks to the new medium of television. . . . Do dogs deserve biographies? In Rin Tin Tin Susan Orlean answers that question resoundingly in the affirmative . . . By the end of this expertly told tale, she may persuade even the most hardened skeptic that Rin Tin Tin belongs on Mount Rushmore with George Washington and Teddy Roosevelt, or at least somewhere nearby with John Wayne and Seabiscuit.” —Jennifer Schuessler, front cover of The New York Times Book Review
“Remarkable . . . Orlean’s pursuit of detail is mind-boggling. . . . The book is less about a dog than the prototypes he embodied and the people who surrounded him. It is about story-making itself, about devotion, luck and heroes. . . . Ultimately, the reader is left well nourished and in awe of both Orlean’s reportorial devotion and at her magpie ability to find the tiniest sparkling detail." —Alexandra Horowitz, San Francisco Chronicle
“Deeply moving . . . An unforgettable book about the mutual devotion between one man and one dog.” —Scott Eyman, The Wall Street Journal
“Dazzling . . . Susan Orlean has fashioned a masterpiece of reporting and storytelling, some of it quite personal and all of it compelling. Animal-related books have always peppered best-seller lists—Seabiscuit comes quickly to mind—and this one will top such lists. It deserves to, and also to work its way into millions of hearts and minds. . . . [Carl] Sandburg called Rin Tin Tin ‘thrillingly intelligent’ and ‘phenomenal.’ The same can be said for this remarkable book. . . . Spectacular.” —Chicago Tribune
“Epic . . . Heartfelt . . . An enormously satisfying story about a dog and the man who believed in him.” —Carol Memmott, USA Today
“Stunning . . . A book so moving it melted the heart of at least this one dogged Lassie lover . . . Don’t let the book’s title fool you. Calling Rin Tin Tin the story of a dog is like calling Moby-Dick the story of a whale. Orlean surfs the tide of time, pushing off in the 1900s and landing in the now, delivering a witty synopsis of nearly a century of Rin Tin Tins and American popular culture. The result is a truly exceptional book that marries historical journalism, memoir, and the technique of character-driven, psychologically astute, finely crafted fiction: a whole far greater than the sum of its parts.” —Meredith Maran, The Boston Globe
“It's a story of magnificent obsession. Nearly a decade in the making, combining worldwide research with personal connection, it offers the kind of satisfactions you only get when an impeccable writer gets hold of one heck of a story. . . . Deft . . . Insightful . . . Fascinating.” —Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times
“Susan Orlean has written a book about how an orphaned dog became part of millions of households, and hearts, in a way that may reveal the changing bonds between humans and animals, too. . . . One of the many pleasures of this book is the historical breadth of the story.” —Scott Simon, NPR’s Weekend Edition
“An improbably fascinating tale of one of the first canine celebrities, the times that catapulted him to fame, and the legacy that endures.” —People magazine’s “Great Fall Reads”
“Brilliant . . . Orlean, a staff writer for The New Yorker, earned considerable critical praise for her 1998 book The Orchid Thief. But if there were any book she was born to write, it's this one. The product of years of dogged research, it's her magnum opus, a work filled with fascinating stories . . . [and] stunning prose that is both compassionate and perceptive.” —Michael Schaub, NPR
“Engrossing . . . Delightful . . . Olean finds much more to the story than a man and his dog . . . . Its heart lies in her exploration of how a dog could come to embody the ideal of heroic devotion and, eventually, exist as an icon outside the boundaries of time.” —Douglass K. Daniel, The Associated Press
“Orlean relates the histories of the original Rin Tin Tin and his various successors with her customary eye for captivating detail.” —Entertainment Weekly
“Heartening . . . It’s a story that may surprise you. . . . Rin Tin Tin embodied the spirit of America.” —Rita Braver, CBS Sunday Morning
“Rapturous . . . This dog’s eye history of Hollywood in the 1920s is exuberant and told with as much energy as love. . . . It is to be numbered among the best Hollywood biographies.” —David Thomson, The New Republic
“Fascinating . . . Orlean’s deadpan sense of humor and ear for the odd and beguiling fact make it hard to put down the book. But there’s also something haunting about it, a sense of the brevity of life and fame. . . . Orlean’s writing is built to last. As individual as a fingerprint, or a face, it turns what could have been a footnote to history into a touching account of the way one life resonates with others.” —Margaret Quamme, The Columbus Dispatch
“Rin Tin Tin is a tale of devotion . . . [and] an eloquent, powerful inquiry into ‘how we create heroes and what we want from them,’ and about what endures in our culture. . . . Orlean’s book runs much deeper than Baby Boomer nostalgia. . . . Orlean manages to surprise us repeatedly.” —Heller McAlpin, The Christian Science Monitor
“It is a book that is best read in solitude, or at least in the company of someone who won't be annoyed when you speak up every few moments to share some fascinating fact that Orlean has uncovered, which she does on nearly every page.” —Robert Philpot, Fort Worth Star-Telegram
“Rin Tin Tin was more than a dog. He embodied the core paradoxes of the American ideal: He was a loner who was also a faithful companion, a brave fighter who was also vulnerable. I was astonished to learn from this delightful book that he has existed for eleven generations over a century. By chronicling his amazing ups and downs, Susan Orlean has produced a hugely entertaining and unforgettable reading experience.” —Walter Isaacson, author of Steve Jobs
“Not only does Susan Orlean give us a fascinating and big-hearted account of all the many incarnations of Rin Tin Tin, she shows us the ever-changing role of American dogs in times of war and peace. This book is for anyone who has ever had a dog or loved a dog or watched a dog on television or thought their dog could be a movie star. In short—everyone.” —Ann Patchett, author of State of Wonder and Bel Canto
“I adored this book. It weaves history, war, show business, humanity, wit, and grace into an incredible story about America, the human-animal bond, and the countless ways we would be lost without dogs by our sides, on our screens, and in our books. This is the story Susan Orlean was born to tell—it’s filled with amazing characters, reporting, and writing.” —Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
“Move over Seabiscuit, Rin Tin Tin will be the most-talked-about animal hero of the year and beyond. . . A spectacularly compelling portrait . . . Engrossing, dynamic, and affecting." —Booklist (starred review)
“[Orlean] combines all her skills and passions in this astonishing story . . . A terrific dog’s tale that will make readers sit up and beg for more.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“Stirring . . . A tale of passion and dedication overcoming adversity. . . . Even readers coming to Rin Tin Tin for the first time will find it difficult to refrain from joining Duncan in his hope that Rin Tin Tin’s legacy will ‘go on forever.’” —Publishers Weekly