Confessions of a Prairie Bitch
Just about everyone with a TV set is familiar with Alison Arngrim — as a child, she played that blond-wigged baddie Nellie Oleson on Little House on the Prairie. From 1974 until 1981, viewers hated her evil on-screen antics, but Arngrim grew to love her character and the freedom and confidence that the role inspired within her. Having had the “biggest little bitch on the prairie” to show her the way, she believes that being a frontier-era version of Veruca Salt (Willie Wonka’s favorite troublemaker), actually taught her to be stronger, more fearless, and determined to make the world a better place.
Once she finished her run on the show, she began doing stand-up, talking about what it was like to grow up as one of the most hated girls in TV history. A gifted conversationalist, she invited questions from the audience and would address those that were asked the most. This eventually morphed into a successful one-woman show titled Confessions of a Prairie Bitch. Now she’s taken the best moments from that show to write this red-hot book of the same name.
Subtitled How I Survived Nellie Oleson and Learned to LOVE Being Hated, the book is her real-life story, which is certainly as compelling as any celebrity “tell-all” in recent memory. Still, to think of this as just another entertainment autobiography would be giving both Arngrim and everything she’s been through too little credit.
Beyond the plethora of show-biz tales, told as only an insider could, the more enthralling segments concern her growing up with parents who were unique, to say the least. Born in Queens, N.Y., she and her family moved to Hollywood early on to pursue their individual careers.
Her mother was legendary voice artist Norma MacMillan, responsible for voicing such Saturday morning favorites as Casper the Friendly Ghost, Sweet Polly Purebred, Gumby, and his little blue gal-pal Goo, too. Likewise, her father, Thor Arngrim, was a talent manager whose clients included Liberace and Christine Jorgensen (or “Auntie Christine” as Alison knew her), the first person widely publicized in the United States to have had sex-reassignment surgery.
Fondly recollecting her dad’s often over-the-top appetite for publicity, she describes the time during Little House’s first season when he and his then not-quite-famous daughter crashed a studio party: “I, in my nearly thousand-dollar dress, my father in a tuxedo he had bought for two dollars at a church rummage sale!”
Most of the really side-splitting chapters involve series star Melissa Gilbert, who portrayed Nellie’s arch-nemesis Laura Ingalls. In reality, though, the two were best friends who would regularly spend weekends over at one another’s houses.
During one such visit, Arngrim recalls how they accidentally got hammered by eating 40-proof rum cakes that they bought, innocently enough, at the local 7-Eleven. Later, in a chapter aptly titled “Melissa and Me: To Pee Or Not To Pee,” she recounts an incident when she and Gilbert were filming the episode in which the Olesons and the Ingalls go camping. Part of the plot required the pair to spend hours filming in a chilly river. With no break in sight, they each agreed to urinate in the wetsuits they wore under their costumes. (“Do it! It’ll keep you warm,” Gilbert urged wickedly.) When was the last time you read anything that made you truly double over with laughter? This will do just that!
Arngrim also remains close with Lindsay and Sidney Greenbush, the twins who shared the role of Laura’s baby sister, Carrie, who, Arngrim says, was “an adorable, but extremely accident-prone dumpling of a child.” The author even reveals the reason behind the girl’s notorious tumble during the opening credits. In the rush to ready the little girl for the sequence, her mother inadvertently put her shoes on the opposite feet!
And yes, Michael Landon and the rest of the cast enjoy their share of delightfully dishy paragraphs as well.
Sandwiched in between some truly uproarious memories, though, are accounts of life-altering challenges. Not least of these was her struggle to survive a history of abuse from another relative, which was the source of depression well into her adult years.
Sadly, the trials didn’t lessen. The loss of her close confidant Steve Tracy (who played Nellie’s husband, Percival) to AIDS-related complications left her devastated. However, she explains how she turned such traumas into triumphs by becoming an advocate for causes like AIDS and child protection.
Written in a clear-cut and delightfully witty style, the book is tough to put down! It is overflowing with the same kind of comic-tinged empathy that Arngrim herself has become renowned for. She skillfully places her most potent memories in deliberate sequence — funny first to prepare readers for a serious revelation, followed by funny immediately after to raise their spirits once more. Both lighter and darker elements of her narrative are startlingly effective.
This attitude of consideration also shows in her appearances for the book. Recently, on the very day it was announced that she had made the New York Times Bestseller List, a signing was held in Hollywood. After autographing a copy for a family visiting from Canada and posing for the obligatory photos, she warned the parents that they might prefer to read the book themselves before their school-aged children did, to better ensure everyone would be fully informed as to a few PG-13-rated moments it contains.
There are very few role models out there to whom so many differing groups — young, old, gay, straight, liberal or conservative — can relate equally well. Arngrim is certainly one of them, and her Confessions is a riveting and heart-felt memoir.
Leo Buck has reported on entertainment and lifestyles for over a decade. He is a regular contributor to LGBT publications on both sides of the Atlantic, and he was the entertainment correspondent on Village TV‘s “The Gay News,” a show hailed as “a gay frat boys’ comic look at the top stories of the week.” He’s also the driving force behind “Buck-ing Trends,” a theater-related blog at http://buckingtrends.wordpress.com.