Even though I was an avid reader of Little House on the Prairie as a kid (I was a bookish child who elected to stay in from recess and read and must have worked my way through the series half a dozen times), I have never actually watched a complete episode of the ’70s-era television show. That didn’t stop me from picking up Confessions of a Prairie Bitch (2010) by Allison Arngrim, her memoir of working as a child actor on that series. I was persuaded by my appreciation for an excellent title (h/t to Arngrim there) and my love of Hollywood gossip.
This autobiography doesn’t disappoint. Arngrim’s family life is unconventional, with a mother who is not particularly maternal and a father who is gay. Her parents piece together show-biz careers, and soon her brother, Stefan, begins acting. Arngrim’s tone is matter-of-fact as she recounts her family’s peripatetic lifestyle, her parents’ unique approach to child-rearing, and later the sexual abuse she suffers, for years, at the hands of Stefan.
It is partly to escape this abuse that Arngrim pursues what becomes the defining role of her career: Nellie Olsen on Little House on the Prairie. Arngrim’s anecdotes from the Little House set are exactly what I want in a Hollywood memoir. They film in the Simi Valley, in summer, in prairie clothes and, for Arngrim, the Nellie Olsen wig, which was essentially skewered onto her scalp with pins. Arngrim introduces a parade of idiosyncratic Hollywood actors and crew members, most notably Michael Landon, the patriarch of Little House. Self-conscious of his height, he wore shoes with lifts and insisted on positioning himself on a ladder or staircase if he was in frame with another male actor. For me, the best part of Confessions is this sort of contrast between the wholesome (even saccharine) Little House and the realities of its production. For one thing, Landon wore “the tightest pants you ever saw–with not a stitch of underwear” on set, likely to appeal to female viewers. For another, the crew drank constantly during production.
I’ve come to terms with the fact that I can’t ever love the Little House books as I did as a child, knowing what I do now about, for example, how the Ingalls family illegally occupied Native American land (not to mention the books’ overt anti-Indian racism). Ironically, Arngrim’s experiences of familial abuse, a workplace awash in liquor, working with difficult people, and being incredible physically uncomfortable for long periods of time probably more closely captures what the pioneers went through.