Thursday, March 1, 2012

'Rin Tin Tin: The Life & the Legend'

"Not another animal book!" you might be thinking as you read this.  "Aren't we a bit tired of Book Hog's obsession with animal stories?"

Tough.  When I'm feeling jaded and desensitized by society's little antics, I turn to animal stories.  They are a breath of fresh air, and reestablish my ties to the living world.  And one such book not only made me cry, but filled my head with interesting facts.  We love interesting facts, don't we?

Susan Orlean's latest book, 'Rin Tin Tin: The Life & the Legend' is full of facts about the use of animals in early cinema, and later, television.  I remember watching the t.v. show, 'The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin', when I was a kid.  I loved that dog.  The humans, not-so-much.  My parents had always owned a German Shepherd, so the program really hit home for me and my siblings.  We wondered if our dog was as brave as 'Rinty'.  Would he jump fences?  Would he rescue us from dastardly villains?  Our poor dog was always in the backyard, either sleeping or eating, and didn't seem like a great example of doggy courage.  Those Shepherds came and went; my mother's last Shepherd grew old before our eyes, and her death, as inevitable as it was, still broke my heart.  I expected her to stay with Mom forever.

As so it was with the original Rin Tin Tin.  He was just a puppy when he was found and rescued by Lee Duncan during World War 1 in France.  The new-born pup, his siblings, and mother, were living in the ruins of a bombed-out dog kennel.  Duncan, who had lived in an orphanage for many years until his mother was able to support him and his sister, found a kindred spirit in the lively puppy.  He brought Rinty back to the United States, and with gentle training, the dog became a star of the silent screen and an international icon.  They were best friends.  They shared a life of devotion and love.  So bonded was Duncan to his dog that his two marriages fell by the wayside.  

The rest of the story concerns the careers of the other 'Rintys'; the grandson, the great-grandson, etc.; eleven generations in all.  Orlean talked to people who either had a hand in the careers of the dogs who carried on the legend, or those who had known of them.  

But it is the life of the original Rin Tin Tin that I felt was the most interesting.  He was a paradox:  He was a fighter, yet a friend.  He was a loner, yet longed to be a member of a pack.  The humans may have rolled the dice for him; sometimes winning, sometimes losing; but it is first and foremost the story of the first Rinty, an orphaned pup who not only captured the heart of the world, but has now captured mine.

Orlean's research is impeccable, and she goes a step beyond, which sets her apart from many other investigative writers.  But one short sentence has clearly touched me more than any other part of her amazing book:

                                    He died on a warm summer day in 1932.

I cried when I first read it, and I cry every time I remember it.  When Orlean visited the final resting place of the original Rinty, she wondered why he was buried in France, when he had died in California. 

So that, dear reader, is why I read animal stories.  Not only for the facts, but also for the renewal of my compassion for animals.  This is a story I will most certainly read again.  It will touch everyone who has ever loved a dog.  Or even a cat, for that matter.

As long as I continue to love and respect the animals in my life, I truly realize that that is what makes my heart soar.  Thank you, Susan Orlean, for adding yet another touching animal biography to my shelves.

Not only has she published many other works, Susan Orlean is also the author of one of my favorite pieces of non-fiction, 'The Orchid Thief', which was made into the Academy Award-winning film, 'Adaptation'.

No comments: