For everyone who took one look at the title and started running in the other direction: come back, it’s not what you think. For those who took one look at the title and just got confused, allow me to explain. Alison Arngrim is an actress, writer and stand-up comedienne who is best know for a role she played as a child, her seven year stint as Nellie Oleson on Little House On The Prairie (the “prairie bitch” of the title). The book is essentially an extension of her one-woman show where she talks about her life and career (it even shares the show’s title).
Here’s something that I feel is important in context: I am not a Little House On The Prairie fan. I am certainly aware of it and can appreciate its success, both at the time and today in reruns and syndication. But the show debuted when I was a year old (in 1974) and, if I ever watched it, I have no conscious memory of it at all. What drew me to the book was not Alison’s career or memories of her character as I had none. What drew me to the book was, very simply, Alison.
I’ve read a few celebrity focused books over the years (memoirs, oral histories, etc…) and I’ve found that I have a distinct preference for a specific type of voice in these books: that of the people involved. Detached, scholarly tomes tend to bore the hell out of me; more gossipy ones are just a waste of paper. What resonates with me is the idea that, through the page, we’re getting some idea of who this person is, of what it would be like to know them as people. And in Confessions Of A Prairie Bitch, personality is Alison’s foremost weapon, the tool she uses to draw in the reader.
Her upbringing is atypical. Her mother was an actress best known for doing the voices of Gumby and Underdog‘s Sweet Polly Purebred, her father a “publicity seeking missile” of an agent/manager. Her brother was a teen idol for his role in Land Of The Giants…but behind the scenes, he was doing copious amounts of drugs and sexually abusing Alison for years. Alison’s primary impetus for going into acting was to earn enough money to buy her own apartment so she wouldn’t have to be around her brother. Her role on Little House caused her to be nationally hated to the point of actually being physically attacked during the one and only publicity appearance she made in character. She has seen friends die of AIDS, has lost both of her parents. Under these circumstances, it would be all too easy for Alison to assume the role of victim, to use her memoir as a chance to bemoan her fate.
Which makes it all the more incredible that she doesn’t. Make no mistake, Alison Arngrim is aware that she has gone through some hardships in her life. But she relates these stories from the perspective of a survivor, from someone who has learned to stand tall and endure through even the most painful of situations. She is charming, honest, clear-headed, straightforward and very, very funny. Reading her book feels like spending time with a good friend, someone with great stories to tell and a great perspective on those stories. Confessions Of A Prairie Bitch is always engaging and never less than interesting. It is, in short, a blast.