26 April 2014

Confessions of a Prairie Bitch: How I Survived Nellie Oleson and Learned to Love Being Hated

Synopsis from Goodreads: For seven years, Alison Arngrim played a wretched, scheming, selfish, lying, manipulative brat on one of TV history's most beloved series. Though millions of “Little House on the Prairie” viewers hated Nellie Oleson and her evil antics, Arngrim grew to love her character—and the freedom and confidence Nellie inspired in her.

In Confessions of a Prairie Bitch, Arngrim describes growing up in Hollywood with her eccentric parents: Thor Arngrim, a talent manager to Liberace and others, whose appetite for publicity was insatiable, and legendary voice actress Norma MacMillan, who played both Gumby and Casper the Friendly Ghost. She recalls her most cherished and often wickedly funny moments behind the scenes of Little House: Michael Landon's "unsaintly" habit of not wearing underwear; how she and Melissa Gilbert (who played her TV nemesis, Laura Ingalls) became best friends and accidentally got drunk on rum cakes at 7-Eleven; and the only time she and Katherine MacGregor (who played Nellie's mom) appeared in public in costume, provoking a posse of elementary schoolgirls to attack them.

Arngrim relays all this and more with biting wit, but she also bravely recounts her life's challenges: her struggle to survive a history of traumatic abuse, depression, and paralyzing shyness; the "secret" her father kept from her for twenty years; and the devastating loss of her "Little House husband" and best friend, Steve Tracy, to AIDS, which inspired her second career in social and political activism. Arngrim describes how Nellie Oleson taught her to be bold, daring, and determined, and how she is eternally grateful to have had the biggest little bitch on the prairie to show her the way

Stats for my copy: Hardback, published by It Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2012; borrowed from my local library.

First line: The Los Angeles County Fair is probably not the first place you'd go if you were seeking to be forgiven of your sins, but I have a tendency to find strange things in strange places.

My thoughts: That opening line is from the Introduction, and is followed by a story relating how a woman came into the tent at the fair where Alison and other TV celebrities were signing autographs, caught sight of Alison, and instantly became enraged, but finally composed herself, gritted out “I forgive you” and stormed back out of the tent. Alison's amusing account of this incident set the tone for the book.

I have fond memories of Little House on the Prairie, but I had no idea that Nellie Oleson had such a cult following of Little House fans who hated her. And that fans like the woman in the story above existed at all. I seriously cannot understand how a person can harbor such hatred for an actor or an actress just because of the character they play. That fans cannot separate the real person from the pretend person, it boggles me. And it boggled Alison Arngrim the first time she experienced it. But she learned to deal with it, embrace it, and come to love it.

I also had not known that Alison had a career as a stand-up comedienne, but her wonderful sense of humor is evident throughout her book. The writing is breezy and confiding, as if you were sitting down to lunch or coffee with the author while she talks to you about her life. Unlike Melissa Gilbert's memoir, PRAIRIE TALE (which I thoroughly loved), Alison's memoir spends much more time focused on the Little House days. The first chapters chronicle her life up until she was cast as Nellie, then we get nine chapters during her time on the show, with lots of fascinating anecdotes and facts and behind the scenes pulling away of the curtain. Even after leaving Little House, however, the show and Nellie remained a large part of Alison's life.

The book takes a couple of somber turns, when Alison relates the abuse she suffered at her older brother's hands, and when Steve Tracy, who played her husband, Percival, on the show, revealed he had AIDS, which led to Alison becoming very involved in AIDS activism (and eventually meeting her husband). But overall it's a fun and uplifting read that left me with a new found awareness and respect for Alison Arngrim.

I was curious when I started the book to see what the author would have to say about Melissa Sue Anderson. And while she didn't say a lot about her, what she did say lived up to what I’ve read and heard over the years about the other Melissa. (And don't get me wrong – this is not a name dropping tell all spread dirt kind of book, at all.) I'm now debating whether I want to read Anderson's memoir, THE WAY I SEE IT, which has gotten a lot of blah reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. But after reading Gilbert's book and now Arngrim's, I feel like it would only be fair to get Anderson's side of the story.

Definitely a must read for diehard fans of “Little House on the Prairie”, but even if Little House wasn't your favorite show, Alison Arngrim's story is still interesting and fun and worth spending a few hours with. 

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