Where do I begin? First, if you are or were a fan of The Little House on the Prairie TV show in the 70s and 80s, I can’t recommend this book enough. Be aware: This isn’t saccharine. Far from it. If you are easily offended, this probably isn’t for you. However, if you loved to hate Nellie as a little girl and wished each week for Laura to give Nellie exactly what she deserved – in spades – this book is for you. If you ever thought that playing the most outrageous villain possible on TV would be fun, once again, this book is for you. Last but not least, if you count Nellie Oleson and her overbearing mother Harriet among the favorite TV characters from your childhood, you need to read this book.
Frankly, both The Little House on the Prairie TV show and the children’s book series were a huge part of my childhood. I can’t imagine growing up without either. I do know that by 2nd grade, I was hooked. Mrs. Butz reading Little House in the Big Woods to our 2nd grade class saw to that. In early elementary school, I would fly off the bus to make sure I didn’t miss the start of Little House on the Prairie at 4 PM, in much the same way I made sure I was home at 4 PM during my high school years to watch Oprah. It was simply what I did, and I loved every minute of it.
I know that there are still a lot of adult fans of the show out there – millions of them, in fact – but I’m not really one of them. As an adult, I couldn’t get over the increasingly bizarre storylines that strayed further and further from the books – Albert’s opium addiction, anyone? Then there was the issue of no mountains in Minnesota, where the show was supposedly set, and the fact that the Ingalls family spent a big part of Laura’s childhood in DeSmet, South Dakota. In reality, the Ingalls family didn’t live in Walnut Grove for long. Still, there was something special about the show. It might be a little too sweet for my taste now, but back then, it was the best.
Nellie and Harriet made the show, of course. The Ingalls were so wholesome and down to earth that they needed Nellie and Harriet as foils. Personally, I think the show would not have worked without their over-the-top antics. They had to be just that outrageous. In the book, Alison talks lovingly about her TV parents. Supposedly, in real life, they were similar to their TV characters, although Katherine MacGregor (Harriet) was much nicer, even if just as bold. Alison’s descriptions of Katherine alone make the book worthwhile. As fun as Harriet was to watch, the best scenes were the ones in which Nellie and Laura actually fight.
About Laura and Nellie … in real life, Alison Arngrim (Nellie) and Melissa Gilbert (Laura) were best friends. They spent a lot of time together on and off set and at each other’s homes. One of their favorite pastimes happened to be simply appearing in public together. People freaked out. I can only imagine how much fun they had playing up their “rivalry.”
Alison’s antics with Melissa Gilbert are a great part of the book, but there is so much to unpack here. First, there is that voice. I chose to listen to the audiobook version as soon as I learned that she read her own book. As soon as I started listening, I knew I had made the right choice. Regardless, the book would have hit me with a huge wave of nostalgia, but Alison reading her book in a voice that I have always associated with childhood evil personified: priceless.
In all fairness to Alison, she comes across as extremely down to earth in her book to the point that I’d actually love to meet her. She spends quite some time discussing the perils and perks of playing one of TV’s greatest child villains. Can you imagine growing up playing a character people loved to hate? Once, during a publicity event at a private school, an event that she attended with Katherine MacGregor (Harriet Oleson), both in full costume, some of the students shoved her so hard that she laid face down on the pavement for a while until her father realized what had happened to her. He ended up taking her home immediately. It was the last time she attended a publicity event in costume. How do you deal with that all before adolescence?
In the book, Alison uses the trauma she experienced as a child as a way to frame her memoir. No, her trauma isn’t exactly what comes to mind with young stars and Hollywood, but sadly, it seems all the more common – and of course, very real. I’m not going to discuss it here for many reasons; the main one being that, in a way, it is the point of her memoir. I don’t want to spoil it for those who haven’t read it. She has used that trauma to try and help prevent others from experiencing the same thing. In essence, she uses her “inner b*tch” to create real legislative change in an effort to protect kids – all kids.
One of the more interesting tidbits I learned in the book is the history behind why the TV show deviated so much from the books. Michael Landon supposedly exclaimed at one time: “My God! Have you actually read the books? There are descriptions of churning butter!” In other words, they had to up the action. I get it, I do. What makes a great book doesn’t necessarily make great television.
I suppose that’s what has always bothered me about the TV show. As an aspiring writer, it sickened me to think what happened to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s original work. Now, older and wiser, I can see the value of the TV show too. I am sure it inspired millions of kids to pick up the original books. All publicity is good publicity, right? For people who grew up with the TV show, I can’t recommend Confessions of a Prairie B*tch enough. There are so many great aspects to Alison Arngrim’s memoir. It is a wonderful combination of nostalgia, good story, and humor. By the way, Alison’s voice impression of Melissa Gilbert is hilarious. Several other memoirs have been written by the child stars of Little House on the Prairie. In fact, I plan on reading both of Melissa Gilbert’s books. I will be surprised if Confessions of a Prairie B*tch doesn’t remain my favorite.