For the solitary Duncan, a California country boy whose desperate mother deposited her small son and daughter in an orphanage for three years after their father disappeared, the puppies represented a turn in his luck. He named the pair he kept Rin Tin Tin and Nanette, after popular good-luck-charm dolls made by French children “to honor a pair of young lovers who had survived a bombing in a Parisian railway station at the start of the war.” Although Nanette died soon after Duncan managed to transport the dogs to America, Rin Tin Tin – and his designated successors – became Duncan’s most significant companions and source of income in a life marked by multiple peaks and valleys.
One of the book’s most astonishing chapters concerns America’s Dogs for Defense program during World War II. Rin Tin Tin served as its public face, encouraging thousands of Americans to donate their pets to the war effort to serve in the K-9 Corps as sentries, messengers, scouts, mine detectors, and cadaver spotters. An indefatigable – dare I say, dogged – reporter, Orlean manages to surprise us repeatedly by tracking down everyone remotely connected to her subject, including an 81-year-old veterinarian in New Orleans who, as a Boy Scout in upper Manhattan, sacrificed his Belgian police dog.