Allison Arngim is undoubtedly best-known for playing the devious Nellie Oleson on Little House on the Prairie, the hit television show of the 1970s and 1980s. Over the years, more than a few fans of the show have conflated her on-screen persona with what's she actually like in real-life. In her candid and often hilarious memoir, Confessions of a Prairie Bitch, she sets the record straight by telling the true story of who she really is. She recounts her unconventional, West Hollywood upbringing in a family of thespians, as well as the heartbreaking tale of the physical and sexual abuse she suffered for years. Then came her casting in the memorable role of Nellie, which she credits with finally giving her a voice. She offers lots of behind-the-scenes dish on what it was like working on the Little House set and her relationships with her co-stars, none of whom she was closer to than Melissa Gilbert, her on-screen nemesis, and later in the series, her on-screen husband Steve Tracy. Following his death from AIDS, Ms. Arngrim became a tireless advocate for HIV/AIDS awareness and later came out with her story of abuse and also became an activist for victims of incest. With a surprising amount of humor alternating with touching emotion, she relates how she grew from a shy girl who was frequently bullied to embrace the role of the "prairie bitch" that made her famous.
I've been a huge fan of Little House on the Prairie, both the books and the television show since childhood. Growing up, I read the entire book series several times and they were among my all-time favorites. The television show was no different. I watched the episodes when they aired, then watched them again in re-runs. Then they started airing in syndication daily right after school and I watched them several more times. Now I own the entire box set on DVD. I'm sure you get the picture that I simply can't get enough of these stories. So when I saw that Alison Arngrim, who played Nellie Oleson, the girl everyone loved to hate, had written Confessions of a Prairie Bitch, a memoir about her time on the show, I immediately put it on my TBR list. My list being the huge mountain that it is, it's taken me a while to get around to reading it, but now that I have, I'm very impressed. It was great to get all the behind-the-scenes dish and to learn more about this talented actress who played the bad girl so well and who is nothing like her on-screen alter-ego. By turns touching and LOL funny, this was a truly great read that's a must-have for all Little House fans.
If one is going based off the character Alison Arngrim played on TV, which apparently many viewers sadly do, they might come away with the impression that she's a royal bitch, but in reality, she describes herself as being quite shy and reserved growing up. She had a rather odd upbringing with two itinerant thespian parents who were mostly distant and uninvolved in their kids' lives. She and her brother were pretty much allowed to do whatever they pleased, and oftentimes things like drug-use and other bad behaviors went unnoticed right under their parents noses. Sadly, so did Ms. Arngrim being physically and sexually abused at her brother's hands for years. After having one starring role in a movie, she was cast as the ubiquitous Nellie Oleson at the age of eleven, and from then on, she describes her time on the Little House set as being a respite from her chaotic, troubled home life. There she found a home and a family of a different sort. Many don't know (I certainly didn't) that she was - and still is - best friends with Melissa Gilbert, who of course played her on-screen nemesis, Laura Ingalls. She also befriended many other members of the cast and crew and held nearly all of them in high regard. But perhaps none more so than Steve Tracy who played her on-screen husband, Percival, the man who finally tamed the wild Nellie. They became almost instant friends and were thick as thieves until Steve tragically passed away at a very young age from AIDS. Ever since then Ms. Arngrim has been a tireless advocate for HIV/AIDS awareness and for the rights of HIV/AIDS patients. She also became a vocal supporter of rights for child incest victims, successfully helping get legislation passed to close the shocking family loophole on child sexual abuse cases. But I think perhaps nothing surprised me more than learning that Ms. Arngrim is a stand-up comedienne, something that I never would have expected, but apparently her comedy show is based on many of the stories she relates in this book.
Rarely have I read a memoir that is as entertaining as Confessions of a Prairie Bitch. Ms. Arngrim is an amazing storyteller who had me hanging on her every word. There was never a dull moment or any slow passages that made me feel like skipping ahead. Every story she tells is fascinating and enlightening. As she related stories surrounding various Little House episodes, I could see each one clearly in my mind's eye, remembering every one of them distinctly. I loved learning about her experiences on the show and what her fellow cast members were like in real life. As it turns out, Michael Landon was apparently a much more complicated man than many realized, a pretty good guy, but not really the saintly person he portrayed on TV and that many fans put up on a pedestal. I was also rather surprised to learn that Melissa Sue Anderson was apparently rather aloof and disinterested at best and perhaps had a bit of a mean girl streak at worst. And it wasn't just learning about Ms. Arngrim's time on Little House and all the dish about the cast and crew that was interesting, I was also fascinated by her life outside the show as well. While many parts of the book are hilarious, there are a number of parts that are deeply affecting, too, such as when she relates her story of being abused or her close friendship with Steve Tracy and how his death affected her. I admire all the social activist work she's done in the years since Little House and I also admire her ability to find humor in even the darkest situations. She credits playing Nellie with helping her find her voice in real life and I can totally respect that. In fact, I find it sad that many fans can't seem to separate the character she played on TV from the actress, and as a result, are sometimes mean to her at fan events. All I have to say is that reading her book has given me a whole new picture of who Ms. Arngrim is as a person and she's someone I truly like and can relate to in a number of ways, something I wouldn't have expected all those years ago when I was watching her behave like a brat on my television screen.
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