Saturday, August 14, 2010

Confessions of a Prairie Bitch - Book Review

Summary: Alison Arngrim's memoir of growing up in Hollywood in a showbiz family is entertaining, serious, heartbreaking and hilarious at the same time.  Alison's father/manager and mother/famous voiceover artist were certainly not traditional parents in the sense of homecooked meals, traditional schooling and "trying to keep life as normal for their children as possible."  Alison's home was one where the Hollywood/L.A. lifestyle was embraced rather than shunned as many celebrity parents seem to do today.  Alison also creatively weaves world events into her story as if they were just normal events in any childhood.  For example, her secretly gay father worked for and became friends with Liberace before "gay" was even a spoken word much less a recognized and accepted lifestyle, and her family was also friends with the first American transsexual, Christine Jorgensen.  Alison's family also watched part of the L.A. riots from her apartment building windows for nighttime entertainment...the same riots that inspired the 1966 Buffalo Springfield hit "For What It's Worth"

Alison's older brother was a child/teenage star before whose star had burned out before Alison won the role of Nellie on Little House on the Prairie.  Alison's brother, violent and drug addicted, was often left to babysit his six year old sister and routinely molested, drugged and abused her. Alison's parents were literally clueless when it came to her brother's abuse and his escalating drug abuse. She describes the night several years later when they sat her down to tell her that her brother had been arrested and was a heroin addict.

"You mean you knew about this?" they gasped.

Now I began rolling my eyes in earnest. Just how dense were these people? I explained to them that yes, I knew that he did heroin, and so did most of Los Angeles; that that's what all those people who came over to our house at all hours of the day and night to see him were doing: bringing him heroin, shooting heroin with him, reviving him after too much heroin (p. 107)

Alison's life on the Little House on the Prairie set was more of a family life than she had at home and a place safe from her brother.  With her Auntie Marion on set to guide her, she built up a lifelong relationship with best bud Melissa Gilbert (Laura).  Outgoing, personable, bossy and a child of extremely wealthy parents, it was no surprise, Alison says that Melissa grew up to be the "Don Corleone of the Screen Actor's Guild." (143).  Alison also describes life on the set under the control of creative genius Michael Landon who was not the saint the media would have the rest of the world believe but a genuine albeit flawed human being who cared deeply for his projects and the people involved.

Everyone always asks if Michael was like a father to me, if he loved me.  I have no idea if he loved me, but he went one better as far as I'm concerned.  He respected me.  Respect is something very hard to come by for child actors...

I think this contributes to the rampant lack of self-respect we see so often in ex-child stars and the resulting self-destructive behavior. If you're never asked to meet a standard, never held accountable for anything, sure, nothing's ever your fault, but then nothing's ever to your credit either.  It's pretty much as if you were never even there.  This was never the case for any child actor in Little House on the Prairie.  Or as we like to say, "Cast of Little House: no arrests, no convictions."

And I do believe we owe that to Michael (p. 125-126).

Partially because of her non-traditional upbringing, her life on a set where child actors were not spoiled rotten kids who received everything they asked for, and her psychological ability to somehow survive her brother's abuse, Alison's personality is absolutely hilarious, and this book is written in her voice.  Early in the book she introduces the reader to each of the LHOP characters.  In this excerpt she introduces her own character:

Nellie Oleson (Moi!): Nellie decides to take out her misery on everyone in her path.  Okay, maybe I'm a little prejudiced here, but can you blame her for being cranky?  She's stuck in a small town in the middle of nowhere in the 1800s with a bossy mother, an insipid brother, and a Shirley Temple do that she's forced to wear way past puberty.  She's bored, frustrated, and ridiculously overdressed for the climate and the occasion.  Feisty new girl Laura Ingalls pisses her off from day one, starting a seven-year spiral of cruelty, backstabbing, blackmail and terror (p. 88)

Alison goes on to describe behind the scenes looks into many of the famous episodes that any Little House fan will remember, the wheelchair and campout episodes, mud fights between Laura and Nellie, dinner at the Olesen's table, the famous ringlet wig, wardrobe, outside filming in Sonoma California, etc. 

During the last years of Little House both Laura and Nellie were married.  Steve Tracy (Alison's tv husband Percival) and Alison became very close friends, giggling and joking when others on the set suspicioned that a young romance was blossoming between them.  Alison knew that Steve was gay but kept his secret until the day in 1986 when Steve (age 32) was diagnosed with AIDS.  An avid AIDS activist to this day, Alison uses Steve Tracy's death as an example of how confused the world was about AIDS. Steve's mother had to call several funeral homes in Florida before finally finding an African American owned funeral home that agreed to help families whose loved ones had died from AIDS. Having been the target of discrimination not so long before, the owner understood what it was like to have someone refuse to bury a loved one because of the excuse "we don't serve your kind" (245).

While Alison Arngrim's book is certainly about Little House on the Prairie, Alison credits Nellie's bitchiness as her own personal saving grace.  The character Nellie, Alison believes, is what made her strong enough to stand up to her brother and save herself from the childhood abuse she suffered at his hands.  One Little House on the Prairie was over, Alison was on her own.  She had money and time on her hands and began to think about her life:

All of a sudden, one day about a year after I left Little House, my past hit me like a ton of bricks. I had time to think, and all of the issues that I had willfully avoided came flooding over me in a tidal wave of fear, dread and anxiety (218)...I had blocked out my emotions for so long, I'd assumed they had gone away. But when you're abused, the pain doesn't just "go away" (219)

Encouraged by her therapist, Alison told her parents and confronted her brother about the abuse.  Alison's brother surprisingly admitted everything including that he was "very sick" and heavily abusing drugs and alcohol. Unbelievably though, her brother ended his and Alison's relationship forever with his last comment:

"Sexually molesting you was the greatest sexual experience of my life, and everything else has been downhill from there" (223).

In 2002 Alison was asked to join another activist group, this one organized to help change more laws to help sexually abused children.  Alison wanted to help but knew that it would eventually involve telling her own personal story and using Nellie to gain attention to the cause.  Allison explains her decision to fight for other children living the life that she had endured:

When you're left alone to fight for your life and sanity, it doesn't matter if it's on purpose or an accident. A child's soul doesn't know the difference. My father was left alone at the mercy of strangers in the orphanage. I was left alone at the mercy of my brother in my own living room. But we both learned the same thing. Sometimes it doesn't matter how loud you scream - nobody's coming. The only one who can save you is you (292-293).

My Thoughts: From the first Christmas at Plum Creek when Laura Ingalls was overjoyed to receive a brand new penny and a stick of peppermint for Christmas, I have been a Little House fan.  I watched as they braved the world of the prairie and went into town in Walnut Grove to trade eggs for supplies.  I grew up with Laura and Mary and watched them get married and start their own households.  I envied Mary's beauty, Laura's spunk...and hated Nellie right along with the rest of the world.  How could anyone be so mean??
As an adult I now realize just how true to form all that meanness was...and is. Meanness abounds...whether that meanness is between young girls, a society that refuses to accept differences in others, or in those who take advantage and purposely hurt those who can't defend themselves.  That "meanness" existed yesterday, still exists today, and will still exist tomorrow; as a society we must be able to talk about it to ever get past it. 
What Alison's story does for me besides entertain me with an insider's look at one of my favorite shows, is give an example of a strong woman who constantly had to fight for survival, a strong woman who was also willing to rise above the past to reach for the future...not only for herself but for the rest of the world.

Alison's honesty...true nonsense descriptions of those around her and her life is incredibly entertaining and her story is told with an fresh authentic voice.  Arngrim's book is not written as a tell-all, gossip rag...just frank realistic and relavent discussions of her life, life on the set of Little House on the Prairie, and the benefits of life as "Prairie Bitch," an absolute must read.


  1. Oh my goodness! I LOVED the Little House books, and the television series. Nellie was certainly the girl we all loved to hate, while Laura was so sweet it almost gave me cavities.
    I had no idea this book existed but now that I do, I must have it.
    Thanks for the review!!

  2. Meanness is meanness, no matter what, how, or where it happens! Great review!! And I loved the title of this book, too! :)

  3. I also loved the series (watched it more in reruns than I did when it originally aired) and hope to read all the memoirs that have been written by the actresses (Laura, Mary, and now Nellie). Thanks for this great review!

  4. Gosh ... what a bunch of stuff she experienced in her life. Sounds like a must for Little House fans ... but just an interesting read anyway.

  5. This sounds like a great memoir. So glad you blogged about it.

  6. Not many child stars make it and if they do they're usually not very happy people. Hollywood makes them grow up before they should and then leeches from them most of their self confidence. I think think this is even more true for TV stars. Sounds like a very interesting memoir though.

  7. Memoirs are always an interesting ride, some I love, others not so much. Hope you survived the first day of school okay! :)