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REVIEW: Confessions of a Prairie Bitch by Alison Arngrim

confessions-of-a-prairie-bitch

I’ll start the confessions by admitting that I was never a major fan of “Little House on the Prairie.” Even at age 10 I knew sappy when I saw it and not ever having read any of the “Little House” books, I wasn’t invested in the series. That being said, I did watch my fair share of episodes since in that day and age, there weren’t the 500+ channel options of today. Without the snappy book title and loads of recommendations when Jane featured this in a Daily Deals, I would probably never have heard of or chosen to read this book but having finished it, I’m glad I did.

Arngrim starts at the beginning, laying out her parents’ lives and how they got into show business then proceeds to tell about her actor brother and then herself. She’s honest, painfully so at times, funny and a great raconteur. There are hilarious details of how she wowed ‘em with her snooty script reading during her audition for the part of Nellie, the inside scoop on the custom made curls she wore for the length of her time in “Walnut Grove,” her memories of the folks behind the scenes who really ran the production – learn what liquid lubed the actors and how seriously the stock was managed – and discover her take on her fellow actors. For the size cast they had, it is amazing how well they all got along and how they still consider themselves family almost 40 years later.

But don’t think that stories of Half Pint, Pa and the others are all that’s here. Alison bares her soul and her painful family past all without sounding strident or bitter though God knows she has a right to be. Readers who have drug, alcohol, rape or incest triggers are warned that parts of Alison’s story will hit home hard. Life might have been sweetness and light before the camera but the years leading up to her time on the series were awful for her.

The lessons learned on the set to speak up, look people in the eye and get outside her shy shell served her well during her school years of dodging LA gang members on the bus and sticking up for herself at home. The hijinks she got up to with cast member and good friend Melissa Gilbert are a riot to read about as they managed to make it through their teen years together.

By the age of 20 the series was behind her and I wondered what she’d done since then. Not much acting but what contributions she’s made to the lives of others. “Little House” ended just as the AIDS scourge was beginning to be seen in the US and Alison’s on-air “husband” Steve Tracey’s battle with the disease cued her next stage in life. For the next few years, she tirelessly dedicated herself to volunteering for the cause and using her Nellie notoriety to focus attention on the needs of the dying.

What happened then? Alison used Nellie one more time to turn the spotlight onto the dark of her past and work to overturn a law that, as explained in the book, is enough to make you weep. Alison had already had years of therapy by this time but by going public – on the “f*cking Larry King show!” as her father gleefully put it – she and others took on the California legislature and won a victory for the abused.

I finished the book in awe of Alison’s courage in speaking up for causes she believes in and for her willingness to open herself and her experiences to public scrutiny in order to help others as well as herself. I also appreciated her wit and humor and her ability to tell amusing anecdotes that put you there on the set of her show – all without talking herself up or others down. But she’s still honest and funny at the same time. Good memoires are an illuminating read – not just about past events but also about the teller as well and Alison’s book is well worth seeking out and spending time with.

~Jayne

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Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 15 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there's no TSTL characters and is currently reading very few paranormals.

11 Comments

  1. Amanda
    Dec 01, 2013 @ 11:29:10

    Agree with everything you said, this is one of my favorite biographies. So often you hear child stars go on about how they hate being type cast and how they wish people would forget the character they once played but Arngrim is grateful for the character of Nellie . That in itself is refreshing.
    I also love that her biography is honest about the actors on Little House but it was still her biography and not some tell-all (hate those). Its not always an easy read but it is a great one

  2. Jayne
    Dec 01, 2013 @ 12:53:37

    @Amanda: I love how she has come to embrace Nellie and will happily use her fame to help others. The description of her appearance on the French TV show about child actors is a scream.

  3. Tanya
    Dec 01, 2013 @ 13:59:24

    I’m so glad the daily deal has gotten some folks to read this book. I read it at a very difficult time in my life and it has stayed with me. They say the greatest humor comes from pain, and Alison has had her share but her attitude is amazing.

    I did grow up on LHOTP, even when it went into its batch*t crazy years (and that was half the fun). From the smallest anecdote she really captures a time and place. I vividly remember her writing about the hair person on set who had worked with Marilyn Monroe.

    My mother used to accuse me of being “just like Nellie Olsen!” when I did something she was unhappy with. Years later, I told her of this book and said, “I take that as a compliment.”

  4. Brenna Aubrey
    Dec 01, 2013 @ 14:39:26

    I loved this memoir. I was a big fan of the show so it was a nostalgic treat for me but beyond that, as you said, her frankness and blunt honesty about her past does her a lot of credit. I cracked up when she recounts stories about people hating her because of her Nellie persona, unable to separate the actress from the role. Evidently they absolutely love her in France. I haven’t read the other 2 memoirs from the other 2 child actresses from the series but after looking at reviews I have the impression that this one is the best, by far.

  5. Sandy James
    Dec 01, 2013 @ 17:02:53

    Just finished this book last week. I really enjoyed it, from Alison’s candid discussion of her abuse to the vignettes from LHOP. It takes a special person to be able to take a character like Nellie and not only make her real but even endearing. Some of my favorite episodes were about Nellie wanting to be with Percy because I loved the growth of her character.
    Thanks for the great review. I would have given it the same grade. :)

  6. Megaera
    Dec 01, 2013 @ 17:07:59

    I have to say I was (and am) a huge fan of the Little House books, and I will never forgive Michael Landon for what he did to them when he made that travesty of a TV show. If you want to watch a fantastic television version of a beloved children’s book, watch the Kevin Sullivan production of Anne of Green Gables, which was brilliant.

    That said, I’ve read both Gilbert’s and Arngrim’s bios (don’t ask me why — I need a good celebrity bio every once in a while, and these ladies are my contemporaries), and while Gilbert’s was good, Arngrim’s was amazing. She is brave and funny and a great storyteller, and I literally could not put her book down. The positive mileage she’s pulled out of Nellie was exactly the best thing she could have done with it.

    So something good did come out of it, after all!

  7. Janine
    Dec 01, 2013 @ 23:17:01

    I learned some of my first words of English from watching the Little House on the Prairie show religiously every Wednesday night with my friends in Israel at age nine. I read the book of the same title when it was translated into Hebrew and it struck me as a book for children younger than myself, so I didn’t discover the entire series until after I moved to the US.

    The books aren’t at all sappy, and once you get into them they are wholly absorbing. The Long Winter is riveting, and Little Town on the Prairie is lovely. I highly recommend them to you, Jayne, since I think you would like them very much, even if the television show didn’t appeal. There isn’t that much similarity between the books and the show.

    Nellie’s part isn’t as big in the books; she only appears in one or two of the books since the real life Ingalls family didn’t stay put for very long — the first five or so books are each set in a different location. Ingalls’ Wilder memories of traveling across the west in a covered wagon feel authentic, although her daughter Rose also had a hand in the books.

    Thank so much for reviewing this memoir. I did love the show in its early years — when I lived in Israel especially, the American West and seemed so exotic and magical to me–but at some point I outgrew it. I picked up Arngrim’s book during the kindle deal and am looking forward to it even more now.

  8. Jayne
    Dec 02, 2013 @ 03:29:38

    @Janine: Arngrim mentions how the show was a world wide phenomena. I’m going to copy and paste this passage from the book.

    Despite the occasional outburst and stray can of soda thrown at my head, I meet people from all over the world who grew up watching Little House on the Prairie (and still watch it) and tell me the most amazing things about what the show means to them. There was the chef of a four-star restaurant who grew up watching it in Bangladesh and the bookstore manager from Borneo who told me his grandmother still watches the show in their village. Then there’s the man who grew up on an island near Singapore, where his family, who had electricity for only a few hours a day, used it to watch Little House. They had one of the few TVs in the town, and the neighbors would gather in front of their house and stare through the living room window to watch the show. I was in a bar in New York where the bartender was from Israel, the waitress was from Argentina, and the manager was from Iran. They compared notes on their favorite episodes. I receive fan mail regularly from Poland, Germany, Japan, Argentina, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and dozens of other countries. The show is popular in both Iran and Iraq. I am told that even Saddam Hussein was an avid fan and never missed an episode.

    She mentions how the book series had 3 villains who got combined into “Nellie” and how little the show resembled the actual books. She quotes Michael Landon as saying, (paraphrased) “There’s a whole chapter on how to fry an apple fritter. I can’t film that!”

  9. Samantha
    Dec 02, 2013 @ 09:19:16

    I’m in the middle of reading this book right now and just love it. I liked the show growing up but loved the books.

    A couple of years ago, when visiting my in-laws at Christmas, we drove from my MIL/FIL’s house in SD to a relative’s farm in MN. Along the way, we passed a sign about for the next exit where you could visit Laura Ingalls Wilder home in SD. Later during the trip, my SIL (who I never have anything in common with) and I found ourselves talking about how we both wanted to go check it out.

  10. Megaera
    Dec 02, 2013 @ 11:33:08

    @Samantha, I’ve been to DeSmet (the “little town on the prairie” in South Dakota), and it was well worth the time and trouble it took to get there (admittedly I was on a cross-country car trip at the time and it wasn’t all that much out of my way). I think the thing I was most impressed with was the reproduction of the claim shanty Laura first taught school in. It was *tiny.* It’s the only reproduction building, as I recall — the original Surveyor’s House is still there, and so is the house in town that the Ingalls family had.

    Someday I want to go to Mansfield, Missouri, and see the house where Laura and Almanzo spent most of their lives, too. Someday…

  11. karenH.
    Dec 03, 2013 @ 01:23:54

    Oh, I can’t even begin to say how much I loved this book. she has the ability to deal with bad things in an honest, forthright way that makes you appreciate her inner strength, without feeling like she’s deliberately pulling on you emotionally. And I think, she’s the kind of person would just be fun and funny to be around. And she would be a sanctuary to a person who needed a sympathetic ear.

    If she ever decides to write fiction, I will be in line for all her first editions.

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