Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Nellie revisited.... 

NOTE: I wrote this review for "But You Don't Look Sick". Unfortunately, due to my extremely outdated computer, this blog's server will no longer let me download images, so I cannot share the hilarious photo of Alison Arngrim and me. You'll just have to trust me that it was great.

ANOTHER NOTE: Ms. Arngrim is performing her one-woman show this summer. I hope to attend one in St. Paul but will have to see if the logistics can be worked out. If you're interested in her schedule and other goings-on, check here: Alison Arngrim Official Home Page Confessions of a Prairie Bitch. Okay, onto the review:

Book Review: "Confessions of a Prairie Bitch: How I Survived Nellie Oleson and Learned to Love Being Hated" by Alison Arngrim

"The real things haven't changed. It is still best to be honest and truthful; to make the most of what we have; to be happy with simple pleasures; and to have courage when things go wrong." - Laura Ingalls Wilder

It started with a series about growing up in the middle of America in the late 1800's. The "Little House" books captured the imagination of children for decades after they were published in the 1930's; I remember some of the material being read aloud to me in elementary school. It was the basis for a television show which aired from 1974 to 1983. "Little House on the Prairie" featured Laura, her family, and the residents of Walnut Grove, Minnesota and their joys and hardships. Beloved as quality family programming, the show's popularity continues thanks to syndication; it currently airs on the Hallmark channel. Although the show centers on Laura Ingalls Wilder, she had a most memorable nemesis: Nellie Oleson, portrayed skillfully by Alison Arngrim.

I fortunate enough to meet Ms. Arngrim at a local bookstore. She did a short presentation, took questions about "Little House on the Prairie" and signed copies of her book. Quite unlike the snobbish and conniving character she had played, she was warm, enthusiastic and hilarious. She was also a very good sport, even posing with me for a picture in which she wore a blonde wig bearing her trademark ringlets and I wore a prairie bonnet.

Once I began reading the book, I realized that Alison Arngrim is also far more brave and honest than most actors ever dare to be. "Confessions" contains her entire life story, not limited to reminiscences about the "good old days" doing a hit television series. It includes descriptions of love and laughter but also loss and abuse.

Alison was destined to lead an unusual life. Her parents were Canadian actors who later moved to the United States. Her mother was a famous voiceover artist, known for Gumby and Casper the Friendly Ghost among many other characters. Her father was Liberace's manager. Her older brother was a teen idol. The family changed residences in Los Angeles on practically an annual basis, usually renting apartments in buildings where her neighbors were every sort of eccentric one could imagine. Alison went on her first audition when she was six.

Despite some success in a movie in 1972, her career appeared to stall. But then she auditioned for "Little House on the Prairie" in 1974 for, ironically, the part of Laura Ingalls. Even though that role ended up going to Melissa Gilbert, the producers were impressed enough with Alison to bring her back in multiple times. Finally, when she read for Nellie Oleson, the spoiled daughter of Walnut Grove's mercantile owners, she was able to project an air of smugness that delighted the producers, and she was hired on the spot. She never imagined just how infamous Nellie would become over the next seven years.

It may surprise readers to learn that the real Alison Arngrim was actually very shy. She had to be taught to look others confidently in the eye and to stand up for herself. In short, the actress was nearly the opposite of the character she played.

"Little House" had a large cast, and a huge crew, and these people for the most part became Alison's extended family. "Confessions" tells us of the other actors' quirks and endearing qualities, but it also does more, introducing us to those responsible for hair, costuming, makeup, sets and all the little details essential to a production of this scale. It also recounts the difficulty of withstanding the triple digit heat of the Simi Valley set in mid-summer while adorned in the dreaded ringlet wig, full-length attire and layer upon layer of petticoats. This was definitely not the glamorous profession it might appear to be.

Alison became BFFs with her on-screen enemy. When she and Melissa Gilbert weren't pretending to despise one another on camera, they had sleep-overs and hung out. Then it would be back to Nellie behaving abhorrently and getting her comeuppance in some fashion. Alison regales the reader with tales of mud fights, careening down a steep hill in a rickety wheelchair, getting washed down a river and other adventures.

She also became fast friends with Steve Tracy, who played Nellie's husband Percival on "Little House". The two remained close even after they finished the series, until Steve's death in 1986 from AIDS. This led to Alison becoming involved in activism for AIDS awareness at a time when little was known about the disease. She still volunteers for AIDS organizations in Los Angeles and elsewhere.

Ten years ago, Alison was asked to be on the board of the National Association to Protect Children, which addresses child abuse. It was then she went public with the abuse she had survived in her own life. This continues to be a cause close to her heart.

What did she do professionally after "Little House on the Prairie"? She continued to act, but nothing on the scale of the show that made her famous. Alison did, however, become quite adept at stand-up comedy, which she began while she was still in high school. In 2001, in trying to come up with material for her New York comedy debut, she realized that the public was still obsessed with "Little House", so she put together a routine on the subject. Eventually, the routine became a one-woman show called "Confessions of a Prairie Bitch", the basis for this book.

The book version of "Confessions" is blunt, but not in a lurid, self-pitying or vindictive way. Alison's sense of humor and irony, in addition to being one of her coping mechanisms, helps the reader see just how absurd the cult of celebrity is. Alison Arngrim may have been the child we loved to despise, but now she is a woman who is brave and funny.

Title: Confessions of a Prairie Bitch: How I Survived Nellie Oleson and Learned to Love Being Hated
Author: Alison Arngrim
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
IBSN: 978-0-06-196214-1

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