Friday, June 25, 2010

Book: "Confessions of a Prairie Bitch" by Alison Arngrim

I was/am a Laura Ingalls Wilder/"Little House on the Prairie" fan. More so of the books than the TV series, I think, but let's just say I grew up on both.

I scooped up Melissa Gilbert's memoir, "Prairie Tale," when it came out last year (it's now available in paperback). I have a weakness for gossipy Hollywood biographies & Melissa's didn't disappoint -- lots of name dropping & juicy details on everything from her cocaine use to how she found her first husband having sex with a hooker on their sofa; how she got pregnant with Rob Lowe's baby, decided to have an abortion but had a miscarriage before going through with it; and the premature birth of her son Michael (named after Michael Landon).

Now Alison Arngrim, better known as every schoolgirl's nightmare Nellie Oleson, is telling her own version of the "Little House" story -- "Confessions of a Prairie Bitch: How I Survived Nellie Oleson and Learned to Love Being Hated." And it's a doozy. Not so much her revelations about "Little House," perhaps, but the stories from her personal life. Perhaps even more so than Melissa Gilbert, Alison has a lot to confess, & does so with breathtaking openness & brutal honesty -- as well as humour & wit.

I had no idea that:
  • her parents were both actors (AND they were Canadian!!);
  • her father was gay;
  • her mother was the voice of Gumby, Casper the Ghost & Sweet Polly Purebred in the "Underdog" cartoons (all staples of my childhood viewing);
  • nevertheless, they were so broke at times that her father resorted to stealing tips off the tables at a restaurant in order to buy groceries so they could eat;
  • her older brother Stefan was also a child actor, & was in "Land of the Giants," another fondly remembered series from my childhood;
  • he also beat & raped Alison from the time she was 6 years old.

This has the makings of a horrific story -- and it is, in some respects. But it's also a fun read that frequently had me laughing out loud. I knew that Alison had become a standup comedian in the years after "Little House," and her sense of humour -- obviously well honed as a defense mechanism -- shines throughout the book. She gives full credit to Nellie for giving her a safe outlet for acting out all the pain, anger & frustration she felt during her bizarre childhood.

There's something else that Alison has struggled with. When I picked up the book, I read on the jacket that Alison "lives in Los Angeles with her husband." It suddenly occurred to me that I had never heard anything about her having children. I wondered it that would be mentioned in the book. There is exactly one sentence, toward the very end, that explains a lot (p.266):

"As if my mother's death wasn't depressing enough, after a couple of years of trying to have a baby with Bob to no avail, the doctors had officially informed me that the chances of my producing a child through the usual means were essentially slim to none."

But then she adds:

"Yet despite all these circumstances, I was strangely happy on my fortieth. Not exactly dance-in-the-streets happy, but I knew things could be worse, and I felt grateful for all I had."

Later, on page 294, she notes:

"I always manage to find ways to be happy, even when things are awful. It's more than just a "well, the show must go on" attitude. I just always see the humour in situations, no matter how dark. My husband says I'm the only person he knows who can figure out how to have fun doing absolutely anything... I am just ridiculously, stupidly happy. I am often cheerful to the point of being annoying as hell. I don't know if this is a sign of good mental health or recovery, or if it means I've finally snapped and just gone the rest of the way to completely batshit crazy."

One of the things that Alison believes contributes to her happiness is her volunteerism & activism -- first on behalf of AIDS patients (prompted by her friendship with actor Steve Tracy, who played her TV husband Percival & later died of AIDS) and then on behalf of victims of child abuse.

I think there's a lesson in there for those of us struggling to find purpose & meaning in a childless life. I wish she had given us more of her thoughts on infertility & childless living, but I suppose she & her editors felt the book already had enough drama & personal confession in it. In a way, she communicates a lot with just that one sentence, and in the way that she has lived her life, finding her own way to happiness, despite everything she has dealt with. Even if you weren't a huge "Little House" fan, I think you will enjoy this book. I did!


  1. I just read about her book in Entertainment Weekly (they compared her book to Melissa Sue Anderson's, and based on the quotes, "Mary's" seems a little more "nice"), and was thinking about picking it up. Now that I've redd your review, I definitely will. Thanks!

  2. Haven't read Melissa Sue's book but neither Melissa Gilbert nor Alison were very complimentary about her. Just very cold & unfriendly. Alison says she just couldn't figure her out -- although, at the the end, she says that if Melissa Sue is willing to meet, she'll buy the first pitcher of margaritas. ; )

  3. I LOVE your book reviews! I'll have to grab this one. I was a huge fan of the books and the series, even though it really had nothing to do with the books. Thanks for the great summer tip:)

  4. I wasn't really a fan of the show -- I'm too much of a literary and historical purist -- but this sounds like an interesting book. I'm into memoirs lately.

    Bonus: I just opened the July newsletter from our library, and Alison Arngrim is scheduled to visit one of the branches for a reading and signing! I think I'll try to go.

  5. That book sounds fabulous! I'm going to have to check it out.