Thursday, July 22, 2010

Book Review: Confessions of a Prairie Bitch

Whoa, Nellie!

We're getting a whole bunch of new books in these days, including many in our Leisure Reading section. (I know some of you will be especially happy to see many new audiobooks--I am, too)!

One book in particular stood out to me, and I snatched it up the moment I saw it. It is Alison Arngrim's autobiography, Confessions of a Prairie Bitch: How I Survived Nellie Olesen and Learned to Love Being Hated. Nellie Olesen, of course, was the character Arngrim portrayed on the long-running television series Little House on the Prairie, based on the books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Nellie, the antagonist to series star Laura Ingalls, surely deserves a place of honor among the greatest TV villains of all time. She was pure evil in petticoats and fat blonde ringlets. Even as a child, I secretly rooted for Nellie despite her nastiness--Arngrim's portrayal made being bad look so good. Alas, Nellie always got her karmic comeuppance, often at the fists of the pigtailed little Half-Pint.

Of course, I knew that Alison Arngrim wasn't really the evil Nellie. I'd read about her charity work and her second career as a stand-up comic, and I looked forward to reading her autobiography and getting to know the woman behind the "prairie bitch." I wasn't disappointed. It was a rollicking read from start to finish. Did you know Ms. Arngrim's mother provided the voices of Rocket J. Squirrel, Sweet Polly Purebred and Gumby? Or that her (closeted) dad was Liberace's manager? From the very beginning, it seems that young Alison was privy to the stranger side of show business.

There are light-hearted moments, but the story quickly turns dark when Alison tells of the molestation and abuse she suffered at the hands of a family member. In an attempt to escape a hellish situation at home, she tells her parents she wants to be an actress, and she lands the part of a lifetime when she auditions for Little House (thank goodness Jodie Foster wasn't there). Arngrim treats the reader to the reality behind the Walnut Grove facade. Far from being enemies in real life, Arngrim and her onscreen nemesis Melissa Gilbert, who played Laura, became fast friends and got up to all sorts of pranks and hijinks behind the scenes. When the cameras rolled, however, a grown-up work ethic prevailed (this may be the reason the Little House kids escaped the tragic child-star syndrome--no arrests, no convictions)! And when things got hard, Alison learned to use her role as Nellie as an outlet, while internalizing some of her alter ego's strength to help her persevere.

Arngrim's gently sarcastic sense of humor infuses her backstage stories as she shares her impressions of her costars and details some of the outrageous things she sometimes had to do on camera. (Mud-wrestling? The show must go on)! She also tells of the dear friend she meets on set (her TV "husband") and how he inspired her to work for social change on behalf of AIDS patients and victims of child abuse.

Arngrim is not only a talented actree, but she is also a gifted storyteller.I would recommend Arngrim's Confessions to any fan of the Little House series and to anyone who likes a good showbiz memoir. It's a Hollywood tell-all that manages to be forthright without being mean-spirited.

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