Monday, August 15, 2011

Summer Reads: Confessions of a Prairie Bitch-How I Survived Nellie Oleson and Learned to Love Being Hated by Alison Arngrim

I loved the Laura Ingalls Wilder “Little House” books, and when I was a little girl the television series based on Ms. Wilder’s books was "Must See TV." I sat in rapt attention of the Ingalls’ family adventures and the world of Walnut Grove. I adored Laura Ingalls but thought Mary Ingalls was sanctimonious prig. I wanted to travel in a covered wagon and churn my own butter. And I loathed Nellie Oleson and loved her at the same time.

Ah yes, Nellie Oleson, the fiercest bitch the prairie ever saw. She was a scheming, manipulative and evil little wretch, and I couldn’t help but be obsessed with her. If Nellie was a reality show cast member, she’d be saying, “I’m not here to make friends!” and pulling out someone’s weave. Yep, Nellie was the original “Real Housewife.”

But behind the character of Nellie was a very real person, actress Alison Arngrim. Alison played Nellie Oleson for seven years, and lived to tell the tale. And boy, what a tale she has to tell in her memoir Confessions of a Prairie Bitch: How I Survived Nellie Oleson and Learned to Love Being Hated.

Alison grew up in a show biz family. Her father was Thor Arngrim, a talent manager whose clients included Liberace. Apparently, Alison was supposed to keep the "secret" of Liberace’s homosexuality a secret. Yea, right. Alison’ mother, Norma MacMillan, garnered fame as a voice over artist, some of her most famous characters were Gumby and Casper the Friendly Ghost.

Alison had several movie and TV roles under her belt, when she was slated to play the devious Nellie Oleson, Laura Ingalls’ foil. Nellie Olseon was a game changer for Alison. She went from just another nameless kid actor to the most hated girl in the country. Alison is quite honest on how Little House viewers actually thought she was Nellie Oleson, and she often paid a painful price. Someone actually kicked young Alison in the butt and she fell to the ground during a promotional outing for the show. Ouch! I’m just glad Alison didn’t get famous during the Internet age. I can totally see a Facebook page called “Nellie Oleson is a F**KING BITCH!” Um, like?

Alison shares a lot of delicious and honest stories about life on the “Prairie” set. Michael Landon who played that hot piece of Walnut Grove ass, Charles Ingalls, was a truly caring man who had a wicked sense of humor (and often went “commando.”) Melissa Sue Anderson who played Mary can best be described as aloof. Laura and Nellie may have been enemies but Melissa Gilbert and Alison grew to be total besties on the set and are good friends to this day. Together Alison and Melissa got up to crazy hijinks like relieving themselves in a crick while filming a pivotal catfight scene.

Alison also became very close to her on-screen hubby Percival, Steve Tracy. Steve opened up about his homosexuality to Alison, and she accepted him without question. Their friendship is touching and very real to the reader, and when Alison describes losing Steve to AIDS her grief is very palpable.

Losing her good friend wasn’t the only tragedy she had to deal with. Alison’s older brother sexually abused her, and she struggled to overcome the abuse. An early first marriage didn’t survive. And Alison also had to grasp the fact her father was gay.

Like a lot of child stars, Alison also had to deal with acting roles drying up once she became an adult. She could have easily turned another Hollywood statistic, a drugged-out mess or worse. Instead Alison got involved in AIDS awareness activism and she also channeled her rage over being sexually abused to helping other victims. She’s now making audiences laugh their asses off as a stand-up comic. She’s also found much happiness with her second husband.

Confessions of Prairie Bitch is a brutally honest read, but Alison never comes across as “woe is me.” She is fiercely funny, and her writing voice rings clear and true. You may have hated Nellie Oleson but Alison Arngrim is the kind of chick you wish was in your girl tribe. Confessions of a Prairie Bitch is a great summer read. Actually, it’s a great read no matter the season.

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