New Yorker staff writer Orlean (My Kind of Place: Travel Stories from a Woman Who's Been Everywhere, 2004, etc.) follows the long and curious trail of the celebrity dog born on a World War I battlefield.
The author, who has written a cookbook for dogs (Throw Me a Bone, 2007) and about obsessiveness (The Orchid Thief, 1999), combines all her skills and passions in this astonishing story of Lee Duncan (1893–1960), a young American soldier and dog-lover who found the German shepherd puppy that became Rin Tin Tin (Rinty) in France, got the dog home and spent the rest of his life training and promoting Rinty, breeding other German shepherds and living with the belief of Rinty’s immortality. (Rinty XI now lives in Oklahoma.) Orlean—who belongs to the generation that remembers the cry “Yo ho, Rinty!” from the popular The Adventures of Rin-Tin-Tin, which premiered in 1954 and ran for 164 episodes—recalls that her grandfather kept on his desk a little Rinty figure. But the author is not interested only in the dog. She also provides the biography of Duncan, as well as Bert Leonard, writer and producer, and she includes interviews with Duncan’s daughter, the current keeper of the latest Rinty and scores of others. The author tells the story of silent films (where Rinty began his career), the transition to talkies and to color, the rise of television, the popularity of dog ownership in America (especially of German shepherds and collies—because of Lassie) and the evolving tastes of American youth. For years, Orlean chased Rinty—even to his grave in Paris—and by the end, began to question her sanity.
Although occasionally excessive in its claims for the ultimate significance of it all, a terrific dog’s tale that will make readers sit up and beg for more.