The best narrative nonfiction extends beyond its stated subject to encompass so much more. Just as Rebecca Skloot’s “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” grew organically from the story of HeLa lab cells to become a book about race and medical ethics, the “unfurling narrative” of Susan Orlean’s Rin Tin Tin, about the canine movie star, unleashes a cultural history of German shepherds and the changing role of dogs from farm workers to war heroes to pets; the evolution of the motion picture industry from silents to talkies to television; and an exploration of why some cultural icons continue to beguile.
Orlean’s last book-length project was “The Orchid Thief,” filmed as “Adaptation,” with Meryl Streep playing the author. As her articles for The New Yorker also demonstrate, Orlean is drawn to eccentrics and obsessives, people whose often quirky interests come to define their lives. No slouch in the singleness of purpose department herself, she goes to enormous lengths during a seven-year odyssey to sniff out every aspect of Rin Tin Tin’s tale – which includes indelible portraits of three people who become fanatically wrapped up in protecting his legacy.
In pursuit of her “quintessentially American” canine hero – ”an immigrant in a country of immigrants” and “everything Americans wanted to think they were – brave, enterprising, bold, and most of all, individual” – Orlean attempts to “retract time like a measuring tape.” She travels to the Meuse valley in France, where, in 1918, a low-ranking American gunnery corporal named Lee Duncan sent to inspect the ruins of a German encampment came upon a litter of five whimpering newborn German shepherd puppies in a battered concrete kennel. (By the time she got there nearly a century later, the kennel was long gone; what Orlean finds in the area are a sobering number of cemeteries.)
For the solitary Duncan, a California country boy whose desperate mother deposited her small son and daughter in an orphanage for three years after their father disappeared, the puppies represented a turn in his luck. He named the pair he kept Rin Tin Tin and Nanette, after popular good-luck-charm dolls made by French children “to honor a pair of young lovers who had survived a bombing in a Parisian railway station at the start of the war.” Although Nanette died soon after Duncan managed to transport the dogs to America, Rin Tin Tin – and his designated successors – became Duncan’s most significant companions and source of income in a life marked by multiple peaks and valleys.
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.
“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.”