Sunday, November 6, 2011

A dog's life

I have only the haziest recollection of the television show about Rin Tin Tin (it was little bit before my time). The masterful nonfiction story teller Susan Orlean has memories that are crystal clear. She remembers the charismatic German Shepherd so vividly because her somewhat distant grandfather had a plastic Rin Tin Tin toy with which she and her siblings were fascinated. It is that connection that sent her on the path to research Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend. I was lucky enough to receive a fresh-off-the-presses copy of the audiobook as part of Audiobook Jukebox's Solid Gold Reviewer program.

Orlean, probably best known for The Orchid Thief (a book I also listened to) begins at the beginning -- with the late 19th-century origins of the German Shepherd and a portrait of a lonely, fatherless boy named Lee Duncan who connected better to animals than to people. Duncan was an American soldier in World War I who found a female Shepherd desperately trying to protect her litter of new pups amidst the remains of a bombed-out kennel. Lee rescued the animals and somehow made it back to the U.S. with two of them -- Rin Tin Tin and Nanette (named after some good-luck charms popular with soldiers). Nanette died soon after they arrived, but Lee recognized that Rinty was one special dog.

Rin Tin Tin got into the mostly new movie business when someone filmed him making an incredible leap (12 feet?) over a wall and that film made it to a producer who was looking for a dog to make dog pictures. (Rinty wasn't the first canine movie star.) Lee and Rinty had a pretty stellar career, in both silents and talkies, although most of his movies are gone. Orlean describes how a pristine copy of Clash of the Wolves was found tucked away in some movie theatre and restored to its black-and-white glory, and how much she enjoyed watching it.

Once Rin Tin Tin died in 1932 (and in another one of her deeply entertaining digressions, Orlean visits his grave at Le CimitiƩre Des Chiens in Paris [you get a glimpse of Rinty's grave at about the 3:00 mark in this trippy video]), Lee attempted to keep the magic going with his descendants, but the movie industry had moved on. However, Rinty II got another chance at show biz fame 20 years later when television could not get enough Westerns. The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin didn't actually use one of Lee Duncan's dogs (evidently Rinty II was just too damned dumb!), but at this point it's the legend of Rin Tin Tin that has taken over.

And, as is perhaps inevitable in our litigious society, the story of Rin Tin Tin ends with two parties (the "owner" of the broadcasting rights vs. the owner of Rinty's DNA [his descendants]) squabbling over who has the legal right to ... to what? The royalties on the TV show or the few extant movies? The ability to call your dogs Rin Tin Tin's descendants? It's hard to believe that this is important in the larger sense (since it's mostly the descendants of the original parties who are still arguing), but Susan Orlean does an excellent job of making us understand how important Rin Tin Tin was in the lives of these people.

What I admire about Orlean's brand of narrative nonfiction is how broadly she casts her net and how cleverly she brings what she finds in there to the nugget of her story -- how a dog outlasted mortality and how each person he encountered sort of molded their own image of Rinty, so that he met their needs. Lee Duncan needed a reliable companion, but what does Daphne Hereford (owner of the trademark Rin Tin Tin) need? (I mean, I'm all for a good dog story, but some of the people she met are crazy!) And then there's Orlean's ability to tell a good story; when it was over, I certainly didn't feel like I'd listened to more than 12 hours about Rin Tin Tin.

Orlean reads her own work and she's quite easy to listen to. I can hear the care that she takes to read clearly, and her familiarity with the story shows in the comfortable way that she reads. There are no attempts at drama, but when she describes her own memories of the dog, I can hear the voice of a deeply affected person. Even though I found some of her human subjects to be somewhat bizarre, Orlean avoids commenting on them with her voice. It's just the facts, but -- in her hands -- the facts are never boring.

It's been a little more than a week since I finished this book, and I've just started listening to Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken. When I look back at my reading log, I see that I listened to both The Orchid Thief and Seabiscuit within two months of each other in 2003. These women, along with audiobooks, may be responsible for initiating my interest in adult nonfiction. I never read nonfiction until I began listening to it. And almost every piece of nonfiction I've listened to since has been really, really memorable.

Thanks to Simon & Schuster Audio for this audiobook.

[The still of Rin Tin Tin in Clash of the Wolves was retrieved from the Silent Era website.]

Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend by Susan Orlean
Narrated by Susan Orlean
Simon & Schuster Audio, 2011. 12:30

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