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Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend

New Yorker writer Susan Orlean tells the larger-than-life story behind canine movie star Rin Tin Tin.

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One of the book’s most astonishing chapters concerns America’s Dogs for Defense program during World War II. Rin Tin Tin served as its public face, encouraging thousands of Americans to donate their pets to the war effort to serve in the K-9 Corps as sentries, messengers, scouts, mine detectors, and cadaver spotters. An indefatigable – dare I say, dogged – reporter, Orlean manages to surprise us repeatedly by tracking down everyone remotely connected to her subject, including an 81-year-old veterinarian in New Orleans who, as a Boy Scout in upper Manhattan, sacrificed his Belgian police dog.

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“Rin Tin Tin” is a tale of devotion – between the original dog and Duncan, and between the idealized icon and its tireless champions: Bert Leonard, who produced the popular children’s television show The Adventures of Rin-Tin-Tin in the 1950s, and a litigious Texan named Daphne Hereford who strives to keep the legend alive.

Notable, too, is Orlean’s own devotion to her project. In her exhaustive chronicle of others’ battles to lay claim to the Rin Tin Tin legacy, she’s like a dog who refuses to drop a bone. Recognizing her own deepening, sometimes alarming involvement, she writes: “I had started my own story by thinking that Lee and Bert and Daphne were curious specimens for their stubborn devotion, and then I realized that I was no different, elbowing my way into the chorus of narrators to advance the tale that much further, to become a part of what ‘always’ means.”

Although her intitial interest was sparked by the memory of her childhood fascination with an eight-inch plastic Rin Tin Tin figurine her grandfather kept out of reach on his desk, Orlean’s book runs much deeper than Baby Boomer nostalgia. Rin Tin Tin, no shaggy dog story, is an eloquent, powerful inquiry into “how we create heroes and what we want from them,” and about what endures in our culture. Orlean’s conclusion: “something you truly love will never die.”

Heller McAlpin, a frequent contributor to Christian Science Monitor, reviews books regularly for NPR.org and The Washington Post, among other publications.

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