I am not normally a fan of dishy tell-all books. I do, however, have a huge soft spot for books by former child stars. I ate up Tori Spelling’s first book a few summers ago like it was made of fluffernutter sandwiches. Mommy Dearest may well have changed my life when I was 12. (The subsequent movie turned all my friends and I into future theater nerds. There is not a theater nerd alive who can’t do justice to “No. Wire. Ha-a-a-angars!”)
Confessions of a Prairie Bitch was delightful. It was equal parts touching, hilarious, shocking and just the right amount of catty. Having done a little ghostwriting (not for anyone remotely famous) and having known a few ghostwriters (some of whom have ghostwritten for remotely famous people) I think Arngrim is the real deal and wrote it herself. I respect that a lot. The book is based on her one-woman comedy show, which she’s performed all over the world. I tore through the book in a couple of days; skipping several hours of sleep, a few meals and a shower to keep going. When I finally closed the back cover, I was in love. I was also determined to see if it was even remotely possible to do an interview, the results of which you’ll see a little later on today. (Short answer – it was totally possible.)
Alison’s parents were theater people who met while performing in a small theater in Canada. Alison’s mother, Norma Macmillan was ambitious and determined to make her own way without becoming domesticated, Alison’s father, Thor Arngrim, was gay. Their marriage was a business arrangement, but the book portrays them as a team, even if nearly every part of their partnership and subsequent parenthood was more than a little untraditional. Alison’s dad went on to become a talent manager and her mom became a very hardworking voice actress, lending her words to Casper, Gumby, Underdog’s lady friend and Davey (of and Goliath fame) as well as most of the other female voices in each of the mentioned cartoons. Alison’s older brother, Stefan, also achieved some early success with a regular role on a few different series and in movies. Stefan also repeatedly sexually assaulted Alison over a period of several years when he was left alone to babysit her.
It’s a hard section to read, but it’s written with grace and raw honesty. Arngrim says being cast as Nellie Oleson saved her life, not only by getting her out of the house and away from her brother, but by giving her an outlet for the rage and pain she was feeling. Later in life, after the Little House years, she mentions finding a great therapist to help her finally process what her brother had done to her. She’s worked with Protect (Protect is the National Organization to Protect Children) for many years as an advocate and spokesperson.
Arngrim’s tales of life on the set of Little House are fantastic. I don’t want to spoil too much, but some highlights include how Michael Landon took his coffee, slumber parties at Melissa Gilbert’s house, the best way to keep warm in a wetsuit, how the most interesting people on the set were in the hair and make-up areas and how Melissa Sue Anderson wouldn’t play with or talk to Melissa Gilbert or our heroine, Alison. I felt instantly better for my friends and I having to draw the short straw to play Mary when we played Little House pretend.
One of the defining moments in Nellie’s character development was also a huge turning point in Alison’s life – when she met Steve Tracy, the actor who played her TV husband Percival. Fans remember him as the adorable New York gentleman, Percival, who came to play Petruchio to Nellie’s Kate by teaching her to make pancakes and not yell at the customers in her restaurant. As Percival went and loved Nellie nice, Alison found a partner in crime and a delightful new friend and confidante. In spite of the tabloid rumors of a torrid on set affair between he and Arngrim, Tracy was gay. In 1986, before there were drugs and treatment plans, Tracy was diagnosed as HIV positive and died of AIDS related causes later that same year. Continuing her tradition of turning tragedy into action, Alison became an activist for AIDS awareness and LGBT issues. The lady has serious pluck.
Later in the book, she relates a story of being pressured by her parents, agent and others to undergo plastic surgery to keep her career alive after her time on Little House was over. There’s a very thoughtful section that involves a lot of humor and a little boolean math where she decides to stick with the factory original parts and let the parts fall where they may.
The book also shares stories of Arngrim’s two marriages, the first of which ended civilly and the second started when they were both volunteering with an AIDS charity. Arngrim also elegantly (and briefly) talks about learning she was infertile and losing her mom and beloved Auntie Marion who served as her Little House chaperone. I can honestly say Tori Spelling’s book did not bring me to tears, Arngrim’s did a couple of times. Not just quiet little ladylike tears, either. Full-blown snot bubble tears, which would be replaced by out-loud laughter within a few paragraphs. I really and truly laughed, cried and was moved.
Arngrim’s book makes her seem like a no-bullshit kind of lady, someone who isn’t afraid to tell the unvarnished truth about how she managed to turn out delightfully real in spite of the unreal circumstances of her childhood.
My interview with Alison will be up in a few hours, as soon as I put the last few finishing touches on it. In the meantime, go buy the damn book. Since we’re still boycotting our affiliate, Amazon, go buy it at Barnes and Noble.