Guest Reviewer: Shannon Boyce
Full Title: Confessions of a Prairie Bitch: How I Survived Nellie Oleson and Learned to Love Being Hated
Author: Alison Arngrim
Publisher: It Books (2010)
Number of Pages: 297
How long it took me to read: 1 week, 3 days
Where I bought this book: I came across it in a used bookstore.
Like a Moth to a Flame
I remember watching re-runs of Little House on the Prairie growing up—it was one of the shows my sister and I never fought over. While most young girls wanted to be Laura Ingalls, Nellie was always my favorite character. Nellie Oleson was unlike anyone I had ever seen. She was clever, troublesome, and had those perfect ringlets! Celebrity biographies have always fascinated me, so I was interested in learning more about the life of an actress I admire.
I propose that the top 5 quotes from this book are:
5. “When he ran back in, I said, ‘Nellie Oleson can’t get married. Hitler hasn’t been born yet.’ ” (p.200)
4. “In my own family, I knew that a well-placed gag could diffuse the tensest of situations—even save my life.” (p.288)
3. “I don’t remember pain. Or fear. I remember utter confusion. And a coldness, both physical and emotional.” (p.32)
2. “All of us who have lived through abuse are terrified of our anger. Nellie taught me that I could be angry, and the world would not open up and swallow me.” (p.296)
…and my pick for the No.1 quote is…
1. “I looked up at my father, ‘Uh, Dad?’
‘This girl’s, like, a total bitch.’ ” (p.50)
Conversation with the Reader
While I read, I write, and as I write, I read. Here’s some of what I wrote while I read this book:
“Just a few chapters into the book, I find myself in awe of Arngrim’s writing style. She writes about her life in a shockingly candid and comical way. Each page is conversational and compelling. Her personal anecdotes about growing up in a Hollywood family are witty and sharp, but reveal how quickly she was forced to grow up. I’m enjoying the way humour and sarcasm are mixed in with the heavy subject matter. There are many moments that reflect the selfish and naïve behaviours of her parents. I’m finding the way she describes these experiences particularly interesting. She speaks of her unorthodox childhood without resentment but simply as fact.
“I can’t help but compare her early childhood experiences to my own. I spent afternoons watching Little House on the Prairie with my older sister—it was one of the few things that bonded us. All I wanted was her approval. I looked up to my sister the same way I looked up to Nellie Oleson. I desperately wanted to possess the qualities that made them stand out from the crowd, instead of being shy and afraid, hiding away from the world around me. But while I built forts out of couch cushions with my siblings, Arngrim had drug addicts for babysitters; her childhood is so far removed from anything I can relate to. While I longed for acceptance, Arngrim was being forced to grow up too fast. Reading about her life puts my own childhood into perspective.”
“I’m stunned. I had to put down the book for a full day before picking it back up again. Reading about the emotional, physical, and sexual abuse that Arngrim suffered at the hands of her older brother was not something I anticipated. The fact that it began at the age of six was especially shocking. Though the passages about the abuse itself are mostly vague and brief, I found them difficult to read. As a child, I was naïve. I believed that the Nellie Oleson I saw on my TV screen had it all. She lived a pampered lifestyle with beautiful dresses and the perfect home, while I wore second-hand clothes and tried to avoid schoolyard ridicule. But it wasn’t just Nellie that I envied, but also Argrim’s glamorous life as an actress. In my mind, she had everything I didn’t. While I was desperate to swap lives with her, she was suffering in ways I could never even imagine. Reading about her experiences has completely changed the way I see her ‘perfect’ life. Now I understand that acting became a way for Alison to escape the abuse that was occurring at home. It’s hard to wrap my mind around the idea that behind the scenes of a show that became my escape, Arngrim had been suffering years of sexual abuse. This revelation about her life is horrifying. Her childhood was not a childhood at all.”
“Over the last few days, I’ve been devouring this book. Reading about Arngrim’s experience on Little House on the Prairie is a welcome reprieve to some of the heavier subject matter. The behind-the-scenes look at her time on the show considerably lightens the tone of the biography. It’s clear that this book is meant for fans of the show, like myself. The beginning of each chapter features a quote from the show, and the end of the each chapter features facts about the characters and important episodes. She’s written not just a biography, but a reading experience for Little House fans. There are chapters and chapters about the cast and crew, backlash over her villainous character, growing up on set, and exactly what it took to create those perfect Nellie Oleson ringlets! Every story is described with clarity and detail, helping to bring her memories to life. Arngrim’s home life being what it was, it’s clear that filming Nellie’s childhood allowed her to have one of her own.”
“There are several instances where Arngrim describes being bullied because of her portrayal of Nellie Oleson. Her stories of hurt, anger, and isolation brought forth painful childhood memories I thought I had long tucked away. I spent much of my youth bullied by the same kinds of mean girls Nellie represented. I remember the day the most popular girl in the school gave me a note from my crush, saying he thought I was ugly. He didn’t write the note of course, but it was enough to make me run home in tears. Every day was another version of this kind of bullying; my pain was their enjoyment. Reading about the bullying Arngrim experienced re-opened these past hurts. Despite the fact that Nellie’s character was a representation of the girls that tormented me in school, I still remembering longing to be like her. I thought if I were more like Nellie—outspoken and confident—the bullying would stop. She was my fictional end to the low self-esteem I couldn’t remember living without. For an hour, I could fall into her world and imagine a different life.”
“As much as I love Little House on the Prairie, I was most interested to read about Arngrim’s life after the show had ended. I wanted to learn about who she is separate from her iconic character. There’s some of this in the book, where she talks about getting therapy and facing her brother about the abuse she suffered. She also talks about the loss of her friend and former co-star, Steve Tracy, and how his death from AIDS sparked the beginning of her charity work. Outside of this though, there’s little information. I felt such a connection to who she was as a child, that I hoped to find that same connection in the stories about her adult life.
“Overall, I’m disappointed by how the book skims over her post-Little House life. For example, a marriage, divorce, and second marriage takes up a few lines, whereas filming a scene on Little House fills several pages of the book. I wanted to find out about the person Arngrim became, not just the little girl I watched growing up. There were a lot of unanswered questions about how the abuse impacted her adult life and her relationships with other people, particularly her husbands. I hoped she would go deeper in her storytelling, by describing how the abuse affected her ability to trust others, and ultimately, how she was able to move forward. As a result, the latter part of the book feels rushed and incomplete to me. More personal reflections in the book on who she became after the abuse, and after the ringlets, would delve deeper into who she really is. It feels in some ways that she’s still playing a role—the funny, quirky version of herself, rather than the real Alison Arngrim.”
“I love the positive attitude the final pages impart. Arngrim’s optimism and sunny outlook on life is contagious. Despite her difficult childhood, this biography ends on a high note. Each page of the book was filled with honesty and humour. My vision of how perfect Nellie Oleson was collides with the reality of her life. By reading the story of her childhood, I have been forced to deal with some of the issues in my own. Confessions of a Prairie Bitch truly was a confession for Arngrim and myself.”