Though I wasn't a big fan of TV's Little House on the Prairie, (I did however, love the books as young girl), I had heard such good things about Alison Arngrim's memoir Confessions of a Prairie Bitch: How I Survived Nellie Oleson and Learned to Love Being a Bitch, that I felt compelled to attend a book signing and discussion last week at Borders Columbus Circle store in NYC, and boy, am I glad I did.
The overflow audience was filled with uber fans of the show, and they showed their love to Arngrim when she arrived. Arngrim portrayed Nellie Oleson, the rich mean girl nemesis of adorable Laura Ingalls, played by Melissa Gilbert.
Arngrim enthusiastically greeted the audience, and asked if she should read from the book, or just take questions from the audience. Though most wanted to ask questions, she acquiesced and read from a few chapters.
Arngrim is a funny lady, and she has a standup act to prove it. She answered many questions from excited fans, who asked mostly about other cast members of the show and where they are today. Most of the cast seems to keep in touch, with the notable exception of Melissa Sue Anderson, who from reading Arngrim's book, should have played the stuck up Nellie Oleson character.
I immediately went home to read the book because Arngrim was so interesting at the signing. (And who can resist that title?) Arngrim's parents were involved in show business; her mom was a very successful voiceover artist, working as the voices of Gumby and Sweet Polly Purebred from the Underdog cartoons. Dad was a public relations agent, though not as successful. Oh yeah, and he was gay, but that was never really discussed too much.
After a start in Canada, they move to Los Angeles. Alison's older brother got work as a young actor, but when work dried up for him as he got older, he became abusive to his younger sister, beating her and sexually abusing her. Alison tried to tell her parents, but they did not want to hear it.
Alison survived it, and when she got the part of Nellie Oleson, she spent most of her days working and away from her drug addled brother. Argrim recalls getting the part because she understood that Nellie was a bitch. Creator Michael Landon and another producer of the show howled when Alison read a line in a bitchy tone that aced the audition for her.
Arngrim gives the reader an insider's view of working on Little House. She and Melissa Gilbert became good friends, visiting each other's homes. She describes working with Michael Landon, who fought for his vision of the show, and had his hand in every aspect of the show, from writing to costumes.
Landon has been described by others as difficult, and Arngrim doesn't shy away from sharing his demanding personality. But she credits him with teaching the young actors the importance of being on time, learning lines, and not expecting special treatment. He expected them to work as hard as anyone else, and they have a saying about how none of the Little House young actors succumbed to the troubled lives of other child actors: "No arrests, no convictions".
Arngrim is a terrific writer, and her her bubbly personality shines throughout the book. She shares the bad, as well as the good, and the fact that she forgives her parents, shows her strength as a person.
Over the years, Alison has used her celebrity and time for good causes. When the actor who played her husband on the show died from AIDS, she became involved in helping raise awareness of that disease. She works tirelessly to get laws passed that help to protect children from sexual abuse and works to get more money for law enforcement to battle child pornography.
Confessions of a Prairie Bitch is at times sad, funny and moving. You don't have to be a fan of Little House on the Prairie to appreciate this wonderful book, but fans will be rewarded with the wealth of insider information from this delightful writer.