Susan Orlean has made a career out of in-depth profiles of seemingly unusual subjects for her books, articles and New Yorker magazine features. It’s to the point now where her editors and publishers have come to expect the unexpected from the author of The Orchid Thief and most recently, Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, now available in paperback.

“Definitely this [Rin Tin Tin] came from left field,” she told Bibliostar.TV in a recent interview, “but so did The Orchid Thief. That probably came even further out of left field. I have to admit that I think that that’s become entirely expected, that the idea that I’m excited about is one that at first makes you scratch your head, and then say, ‘Well, if you insist.'”

And like The Orchid Thief before, Orlean has once again succeeded in taking one of her unusual ideas and turning it into a highly compelling analysis of a larger theme, this time of hero worship, Hollywood history, and the power of animal companionship.

As Orlean explains, the Rin Tin Tin character in one that has lasted for almost a century, appearing in silent films, talking films, radio, TV, books, and comics, spanning time like very few heroic characters before has. But the real draw came when, after some initial research, Orlean discovered that behind the big screen adventure story of Rin Tin Tin, was an real-life canine adventure, the story of a rescue of a German Shepherd puppy from a World War I battlefield by an American soldier, Lee Duncan.

Orlean’s interest is more than just historical. The author is herself a huge animal lover, with a small zoo of black angus cattle, royal palm turkeys, guinea fowl, ducks, chickens, cats, a dog–and probably a few other species by now–sharing space on her upstate New York farm. Her writing about the durable Rin Tin Tin legend reflects her own deep love of animals, as is abundantly clear from this passage:

“The lesson we have yet to learn from dogs, that could sustain us, is that having no apprehension of the past or future is not limiting but liberating. Rin Tin Tin did not need to be remembered in order to be happy; for him, it was always enough to have that instant when the sun was soft, when the ball was tossed and caught, when the beloved rubber doll was squeaked. Such a moment was complete in itself, pure and sufficient.”

 

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