Thursday, March 17, 2011

12 books, 12 months #6: Confessions of a Prairie Bitch, by Alison Arngrim

This is part 6 of my portion of a book review series brought to you by The Latter Day Bohemian via Middle-Aged Woman.

Holy fun. Clearly I've been blocking a key part of my childhood - the one where I watched 3000 hours of Little House on the Prairie, obsessively read the books, wore prairie skirts, and played out endless Little-Housian stories with my staff of dolls and toys.

Last night it all came roaring back as I read Alison Arngrim's snappy autobiography about growing up playing Nellie Oleson in the wildly successful prairie TV (melo)drama. This is a fun, quick read, and Arngrim definitely keeps everything fresh - light-handed with the serious stuff and laughing companionably (and often) at the histrionics of actors everywhere.

There's not a lot to pick apart. Her narrative is quick-paced and sweet. Arngrim had eccentric, fairly bohemian parents who were bent on their own and their children's success. Money was iffy and her family's coping mechanisms - which could easily sound bleak and sad in other hands - come across as upbeat and quirky.

Even the heaviest piece of her childhood - long-term sexual abuse at the hands of her also-famous brother - is dealt with matter-of-factly. Not dismissively, but not overly sentimental. I had to admire her ability to say "I will share this with you, stranger, and give you the summary. But keep your pity out of my way." It's certainly good for the sake of her mostly comic memoir, and keeps her overall persona glib, humorous, and slightly detached.

Arngrim clearly could write another story about her life, interpreting her odd parents, her brother, some post-Little House life experiences in a much more untangling, wallowing way. But she chooses at every point to make the glossier, humorous punchline. And it works. It IS a memoir and she IS an actor, but for all the layers of narcissism inherent in those two things, it's a good, candid, non-precious read.

Arngrim knows she's writing a book that will primarily be read by fans of Little House, and uses that as her motif, despite the many non-actor things she's done since Nellie (most notably AIDS activism and campaigning for the rights of incest survivors). And she isn't all sunshine and lollipops: she's candid about a few people, including the (scandalous!) rudeness of Melissa Sue Anderson (Mary) and Katherine MacGregor (Mrs. Oleson)'s infuriating habit of directing other actors. But (aside from Anderson, who sounds difficult to know), Arngrim's voice is generally fair and loving, even when she describes some of the most difficult situations in her life.

Given that, it's tough to call her to task for her glib, defensive humor. Lots of people use humor as a wall, and Arngrim at least acknowledges that her humorous shield has saved her. She calls it bitchiness, born from playing a well-known girl-you-love-to-hate. But, you know, not so much. I'd call her direct and humorous and admirable - not much of a bitch at all.

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