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The Life and the Legend

A-RinTinTinBest known for The Orchid Thief (1998), a story of passion and deception in the swamps of South Florida, New Yorker staff writer Susan Orlean collected her voluminous profiles and travel essays in The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup: My Encounters with Extraordinary People (2001) and My Kind of Place (3.5 of 5 Stars Jan/Feb 2005). Her latest effort is a biography of Hollywood's most famous canine.

The Topic: Susan Orlean hit upon the idea of writing about the generation-spanning Rin Tin Tin when she recalled as a child admiring a statue of the dog on her grandfather's desk. Discovered by American soldier Lee Duncan in an abandoned German encampment during World War I, Rin Tin Tin--"Rinty"--would go on to Hollywood stardom and shape the course of film, television, and radio entertainment in the first half of the 20th century (after the first Rin Tin Tin died in 1932; a host of others followed). He counted among his many fans famed director Sergei Eisenstein and great American poet Carl Sandburg; in 1929, he was voted to win an Oscar for best actor in the inaugural Academy Awards (the honor was eventually awarded to human actor Emil Jannings). Here, finally, is Rin Tin Tin's remarkable story.
Simon & Schuster. 336 pages. $26.99. ISBN: 9781439190135

Boston Globe 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Calling Rin Tin Tin the story of a dog is like calling Moby Dick the story of a whale. ... The result is a truly exceptional book that marries historical journalism, memoir, and the technique of character-driven, psychologically astute, finely crafted fiction: a whole far greater than the sum of its parts." Meredith Maran

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars
"Although her initial 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." Heller McAlpin

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Nearly a decade in the making, combining worldwide research with personal connection, it offers the kind of satisfactions you only get when an impeccable writer gets hold of one heck of a story." Kenneth Turan

Oregonian 4 of 5 Stars
"Orlean's search, with a ghost dog as companion and guide, is for no less than the nature of eternity and desire. She ranges to several continents and three centuries, including to where Rin Tin Tin's story began." Nancy Rommelmann

USA Today 4 of 5 Stars
"Susan Orlean's Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend tells the heartfelt story of a mighty dog becoming a pop-culture hero. ... Rinty's popularity continued to surge and dip in the decades that followed, but young pop-culture enthusiasts may discover him again thanks to Orlean's enormously satisfying story about a dog and the man who believed in him." Carol Memmott

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"A deeply moving biography of a dog and the man who loved him. ... This is an unforgettable book about the mutual devotion between one man and one dog." Scott Eyman

Cleveland Plain Dealer 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Admirers of Orlean's writing will see much familiar here--the obsessive research, visits to relevant sites, the weird interlocutors, the lengthy asides (the history of German shepherds, of movie-star dogs), the emotional intelligence, her appealing voice. Here, too, are the occasional overwrought moments." Dan Dyer

New York Times 3 of 5 Stars
"[The book] showcases Ms. Orlean's copious gifts as a reporter: a keen eye for the telling physical and psychological detail, an ability to map the odd obsessions and leitmotifs that thread disparate lives together, and an unflagging sympathy for her subjects. ... This volume, however, does not have the suspense or organic arc of, say, Laura Hillenbrand's Seabiscuit--one of the great animal bios to come along in recent years--and it sometimes feels like a magazine article artificially inflated to book length." Michiko Kakutani

Washington Post 2 of 5 Stars
"It's a touching and revealing story, not merely on its own merits but because it parallels the changing place of dogs in American life, from outdoor workers to indoor pets, but unfortunately there are too many times in this book when it seems to be far less about Rin Tin Tin than about Susan Orlean. ... It is possible that, had Orlean resisted what must have been an overpowering urge to insert herself into her narrative at every available moment, Rin Tin Tin might have been an interesting account of what is obviously an interesting story." Jonathan Yardley

Critical Summary

Susan Orlean has earned a reputation as a dogged researcher and a writer who takes craft seriously. Both facets are on display in Rin Tin Tin. Traveling around the world to get a feel for Rinty's roots and to meet the people who still hold on to the story decades later, Orlean grabs readers with an engaging hook and doesn't let go (bonus points for spending 70 dog-years researching the life of her canine hero). The story is personal for Orlean--because of the subject matter, critics make the inevitable comparisons to Laura Hillenbrand's Seabiscuit--and the writing occasionally overreaches when she can't separate the story of a dog's life from the myth that grew up around Rinty as he came to symbolize all things American. Still, Orlean's passion carries the day. For readers and dog owners, Rin Tin Tin comes the rescue.