When I was little, we used to spend Saturday mornings with my grandparents who lived in an apartment above the bakery. Those Saturday mornings are what taught me the importance of being a grandparent.
One of the things I liked most about those mornings was that we got to lay in front of their television set and watch a whole series of programs that I loved – Roy Rogers, Sky King, Lassie, The Rifleman, and of course, The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin. I thought back to those days as I read Susan Orlean’s wonderful book Rin Tin Tin: The Life and Legend. Such innocent times.
Because I loved Rin Tin Tin, along with Rusty and Lt. Rip Masters and Sgt. Biff O’Hara, it was fun for me to learn about the brave and intelligent German Shepherd’s history. I had no idea, prior to reading this book, that there was actually a Rin Tin Tin descended from other Rin Tin Tins. I always assumed he was just a dog – perhaps named Duke or Fido – playing a dog named Rin Tin Tin.
Orlean’s book is much more than a history of this particular German Shepherd dog, however. She gives us a lesson on dog breeding, and the history of television and movies, and the creation of the marketing industry. The book is a historical account of World War I from a slightly different angle. It is the story of a somewhat peculiar man who, for all intents and purposes, devotes his life to his dog. It is a sociological account of how people (and their tastes) changed over the course of almost a century and why.
Perhaps the thing that struck me the most about this entire story is the simplicity of tastes in the early days of movies and television, and how our tastes have changed. It’s hard to imagine that a program like the Adventures of Rin Tin Tin could have been so very popular, and so quickly.
For kicks, I went on You Tube and briefly watched an episode of the television program. I immediately became 7 again. But man oh man, it was simple storytelling and unsophisticated technology. Very different.
I’ve not read anything else by Orleans, but will definitely do so. I liked her writing style very much. She had a wonderful way of painting a picture with words. For example, she wrote about walking through an American military cemetery in Europe and described the way in which the graves were laid out:
The steady repetition was like a drumbeat, hypnotizing. I walked on and on, reading name after name, soothed by the rhythm of my steps, the soft spongy ground yielding under my feet, and by the flashing white of the crosses as I passed them, the whoosh of the wind tossing the linden trees’ leaves with exaggerated drama, the way little girls toss their hair.
I have walked through many national cemeteries, and her comparison of the white crosses, in such perfect order, to a drumbeat, was magnificent. Great writing for such a book for a book about a dog.
I’m sorry I won’t be there to hear my book club’s discussion about this book. I wonder if older people who can relate a bit better to the Rin Tin Tin era like the book better than younger readers. No matter, I think it will make interesting discussion.
I recommend this book for lovers of history and lovers of dogs.