For me, one of the marks of a truly great writer, fiction or non-fiction, is their ability to make me care passionately about a subject I didn’t think I cared about at all before picking up the book. Susan Orlean’s Rin Tin Tin illustrates this more vividly than any book I’ve read this year.
Yes, I’m a dog person, but I’ve never been interested in German shepherds, or famous movie/TV dogs (if I were, I probably would have opted to read a book about Lassie, because at least I like collies), or the era of silent film. In fact, I had only the vaguest sense that Rin Tin Tin was a German shepherd who appeared in movies and TV — unlike Susan Orlean, I didn’t grow up watching Rin Tin Tin on TV. Until this book coincided time-wise with the release of the movie Tintin, I used to get Tintin and Rin Tin Tin mixed up in my head, knowing that one was a dog and one wasn’t, but not really being more aware than that.
I did know, however, that Susan Orlean is the kind of writer who can make you fascinated with her subjects, and picking up the book to glance through it convinced me I had to give it a try. As a result, I had a fantastic time learning about the life story of the original Rin Tin Tin, a German shepherd dog found on a World War One battlefield and brought back to the US by a soldier named Lee Duncan. Rinty (as he was often called), trained by Duncan, went on to become a star of silent movies. Later, after his death, Rin Tin Tin’s name and iconic image continued in a series of other dogs, some directly descended from him. Rin Tin Tin reached his widest audience in the 1950s with the children’s television show bearing his name.
There’s so much more to this story than that thumbnail sketch can capture — information about silent movies, early television, dog breeding, the use of dogs in wartime, the changing role of dogs in American life over the twentieth century, the passionate obsessions of people like Lee Duncan, who was determined to make his dog famous, and Bert Leonard, who was determined to keep Rin Tin Tin on television and film. Along the way Orlean admits that by researching and writing about people who were obsessed with Rin Tin Tin, she has in fact become one of those people herself. Since she is a dog owner and dog lover, I was very surprised that the book didn’t with her getting a German Shepherd pup from the Rin Tin Tin line for herself. But perhaps she’ll further her contribution to the Rinty legacy in another way: a recurring theme throughout the book is how badly both Duncan and Leonard wanted to see a feature film made about the real Rin Tin Tin and his story. That movie never got made despite numerous attempts, but now that Orlean, who’s already had one nonfiction book turned into a sucessful movie (The Orchid Thief/Adaptation) has written a best-seller about him … who knows?
No question, if there was a movie, I’d go see it. Because Susan Orlean has now made me fascinated with Rin Tin Tin. And that, boys and girls, is what good writing does.