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On this Lit Show, Susan Orlean discusses Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend.

Susan Orlean’s new biography is an extraordinary book about an extraordinary animal. The German shepherd who became Rin Tin Tin was a puppy plucked from the ravaged battlegrounds of rural France during World War One. Through a series of happy coincidences and the persistence of his discoverer, educator, and companion, Lee Duncan, Rinty became one of the world’s first A-list movie stars.

Orlean’s book is not only a canine coming-of-age story—it explores the complexities of modern mythmaking. At first, we follow the successes and setbacks of a dog-in-real-life, Rin Tin Tin, but gradually Rin’s physical presence dissolves into his media presence, diffusing like a drop of food coloring in water. The book is a powerful inquiry into the differences between life and life-on-film, as well as the poignant, problematic ways our cultural stories diverge from our biographical histories.

Susan Orlean is a staff writer at The New Yorker. She’s the author of many books on wide-ranging topics, including Saturday Night, a cultural history of Saturday night, and Red Sox and Bluefish, an exploration of what makes New England, “New England.” Her book The Orchid Thief was adapted into the Oscar-winning movie Adaptation, written by Charlie Kaufman. In addition to discussing Rin Tin Tin’s unlikely path to superstardom, Orlean addressed the surprising origins and history of the German shepherd breed, the reasons why we love watching animals on screen, and the strange twists and turns in her own life as a public figure.

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