Lee Duncan, a soldier who discovers a litter of puppies in a deserted German village during World War I, comes to believe one of the pups – which he names Rin Tin Tin – is intellectually, athletically and even spiritually gifted. At a time when animals were booming in popularity in the film industry, Duncan convinces himself that the dog could have a career as a movie star.
From there, Orlean parallels the growing legend of Rin Tin Tin – from early films to the merchandising of the animal into a brand – with the technological and sociological developments of the mid-20th century, including the American migration from the country to the city. The innocence and morality messages emanating from the dog’s films and TV shows became a fixed symbol of nostalgia in the constantly changing American landscape.
Orlean researched this book for 10 years, and it shows – the men behind the dog are vividly etched, and the machinations of old Hollywood are painstakingly detailed. Orlean shifts into first person to describe her own tenuous connection to the story, but this introspection (or ‘sprawling New Yorker s***’, as Charlie Kaufman described it) never coalesces with the book’s non-fiction narrative. Rin Tin Tin strives for the grandiose, but it is, at heart, the extraordinary story about the bond between man and dog.