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“Little House on the Prairie” Part 4: Laura, Mary, & Nellie/All the Memoirs

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 Little House on the Prairie, the TV show, hit the airwaves in 1974, and of course the books had been around for 50 years before that. Since then, it has never gone out of syndication, so generations of kids have grown up watching Laura, Mary, and Nellie grow up on T.V.

 

Even in the best of times, it seems that the world just can’t get enough of Little House on the Prairie.  There are books (and much more) about the real family, the original series of fictionalized books written by Laura Ingalls Wilder, the television show, which is a pretty loose (especially as time went on) adaptation of the books…and if all that weren’t enough, there is now the books and media related to the T.V. show itself.

And current events…as we slog through the winter of 2021…just seem to make us need it more.

The more you know about the Ingalls family…or should I say franchise…the more bizarre the whole thing seems. 

First of all, the real Ingalls family was much less stable than the family on the T.V. show, who were prairie middle class. While it seems Ma and Pa eventually managed to nudge themselves into the middle class, it seems, for much of Laura Ingall’s childhood, the family barely got by and are known to have “skipped town” at least once without paying their bills.  Laura Ingalls worked to help support the family from the time she was 9 years old, and not always at genteel occupations, such as sewing, that she wrote into the books (and even then, she depicted herself as older when she started working away from home).

Ironically, the success they finally achieved seems to come more from Pa’s woodworking and most especially, his literacy, than from farming. Literacy skills were valuable in a start up town like DeSmet, South Dakota, where local government jobs needed to be filled, and that reality combined with Ma’s insistence that they stay in a place settled enough to have schools for the girls helped them finally achieve some success. 

Ok, so time passed, Laura Ingalls grew up, more time passed, she lived what is a whole life for some people, and after that, in her 60’s, she started writing the Little House books, in which she fictionalized her childhood and made it into the classic books many of us still love today…and note that they have always been published as fiction.   

Fast forward another half century, or a whole century from the time depicted in the novels, and you have the television show Little House on the Prairie, which takes the stories in the novels and mixes them with a healthy dose of Bonanza, Michael Landon, and 1970’s issues in prairie clothes.   

Note that the children featured in the T.V. show were about 100 years younger than Laura Ingalls Wilder, who was born in 1967.  The children in the show, which started airing in 1974, would have, except for the youngest, been born in the 1960’s.  

And what happened after they grew up?  They began writing memoirs about their experiences playing the twice fictionalized version of Laura Ingalls and her friends and family…so we’ve gone from lived experiences (to an only recently published autobiography Pioneer Girls) to a series of novels to a historical fiction T.V. show and back to nonfiction again.  Whew!  What’s next?

 

When I was researching this article, I ran across some other memoirs written by child actors famous for being on 1970’s T.V. shows, and I wondered if there were another story here.  I soon realized that Little House on the Prairie is notable for the sheer number of memoirs that has been written.  In contrast, there were seven kids in The Waltons, and there is only one memoir written by one of the child actors (plus one written by an adult character). 

 

I wonder if the legacy of Little House and its being based on real childhood experiences rubbed off on the children of the Little House?  Whether there is anything to that or not, there is plenty of material out there on which to gorge yourself if you are a fan.

Note: Read Pioneer Girl, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s previously unpublished autobiography, for support of the above assertions and more about the real Ingalls family that Wilder omitted from her novels. 

The Triangulation of the Little House girls: Laura, Mary, and Nellie

 

Probably the first three memoirs you would want to turn to are those written by the actresses playing Laura, Mary, and Nellie Oleson.  They were published in quick succession, Gilbert’s A Prairie Tale in 2009, Anderson’s The Way I See It in 2010, and Arnigram’s Confessions of a Prairie Bitch in 2011.

 

Out of the three of these, only Melissa Sue Anderson’s book isn’t owned by any of my normal library sources, so I can’t report on that one.  I suppose the librarians didn’t see a need for Mary’s point of view since they already had Laura’s; the libraries do own A Prairie Tale.  They do own, however, A Prairie Bitch.

 

Also, when I looked into my Kindle account, I found that I did buy both A Prairie Tale and Confessions of a Prairie Bitch on Kindle.  At that time, I was living overseas, so I didn’t have much access to books other than purchasing them.

 

I have to say, in reading A Prairie Tale and Confessions of a Prairie Bitch, I have to declare Nellie the clear winner in this battle.  Sorry Laura. 

Laura Ingalls Wilder writes better than Alison Arngrim, but Arngrim beats Melissa Gilbert, no question. Even Arngrim’s take on Gilbert herself is more interesting, or funnier anyway. Apparently Gilbert bossed the child cast of Little House on the Prairie in much the same way that Michael Landon bossed the adult cast.


Greg Hernandez, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

 

I mean, normally I would get annoyed with a personality such as Arngrim trying to capitalize on a role she played decades ago, when she wasn’t even the lead, and honestly, I don’ usually much like books by comedians that are supposed to be funny, even when the author has credentials as a writer.  I don’t know: I guess a lot of it is in the delivery for me?  And that doesn’t necessarily transfer onto the page.  That’s just how it is.  I’m a fan of Tina Fey, for example, and I know she’s authentically a but I never finished Bossypants.  The cover grosses me out anyway.

But getting back to Prairie Bitch: Alison Arngrim is funny.  Plain and simple.  Too bad they could never figure out what to do with her after Little House on the Prairie; she should have been in comedies for sure. 

 

She had some pretty rough stuff happen to her in her early childhood too, at the hands of her full brother blood (not a step), but she tells us about it in the most matter of fact way possible, eventually gets around to how she dealt with it, and moves on.

 

Another thing that appeals to me about this book is that Arngrim grew up with feet in two worlds: she was a regular on LHOP, but she wasn’t in every episode, so she continued to attend, if you can imagine, regular public school during the weeks she wasn’t working.  Can you imagine having to go the middle school the next morning after everyone had watched you beat up America’s buck toothed sweetheart on T.V. the night before?  That’s what she did.  Oh, and she was attending school with the Crips, and yeah, by that I do mean the L.A. based gang.

 

So Arngrim had a pretty interesting life, between her kooky family, her education, and her day job.  And although she isn’t rich (the Internet estimates her net worth at about $400,000), she still finds time to do a lot of charitable work.

 

As I was reading this book, the cynical part of my brain registered that this book is an off shoot of her live show, but the Appendix of this book is two pages of every resource you could imagine, from how to get help if you are suffering abuse to every single (major) website associated with Little House on the Prairie, including her costars’ websites.

 

And the Acknowledgements includes “thank you’s” to all of the people she has worked with, and by that I mean her charity work for abused children, AIDS sufferers, and others.

 

 

The Lois Level’s Top Three Quotes from Confessions of a Prairie Bitch

 

If you aren’t convinced to read this book by now, let me leave you with my top three favorite quotes from this book to whet your appetite:

 

1.     On meeting “Laura” for the first time: …I was greeted by a tiny girl with long braids, freckles, and the biggest set of front teeth you aver saw in your life.  It was Melissa Gilbert.  She was about nine years old.  I was barely twelve and small for my age, but she looked as if she might fit in my purse—and could chew her way out if she had to (61).


Twitter.com/Alison Arngrim Fans

 

Alison Arngrim and Melissa Gilbert were really good friends throughout the run of Little House on the Prairie, which now that I think about it, was probably part of the reason their fight scenes were so good.  They were clearly having a lot of fun.

 

I used to do Tae Kwon Do, and I remember sparring with my closest friend there.  The instructor used to yell at us a lot for hitting too hard, but we thought it was funny.

 

2.     On getting a nose and boob job: The doctors, the agents, the managers, the producers, my parents will all go home at the end of the day.  I will be left along with my nose and my boobs for the rest of my life. And even if my new looks helped me achieve the career of my dreams, would I spend my life worrying about whether I was popular for my acting or my plastic boobs.  Here’s a dark thought: imagine people telling you that you’re beautiful and fabulous and that they love you, but you know they’ve never seen the real you (215).

Note: she didn’t get the surgery.

 

3.     On being Nellie: I owe it all to the bitch on the prairie.  When I played Nellie Oleson, she allowed me to scream, to howl, to throw things, to pour out all my pain and rage over and over again in a safe place.  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 (296).

More from The Lois Level on Little House

“Little House on the Prairie” Part 1: Does Fraser’s “Prairie Fires” burn Wilder’s “Little House”?

“Little House on the Prairie” Part 2: Laura Ingalls’ Superfans

“Little House on the Prairie” Part 3: Making Fiction From Fact

FREE Newbery Award Books Part 2: Fiction set in the Western United States

Share a Family Story (or Series) with your Family: Moving beyond the “Little House” Books

 

Will the real Nellie Oleson please stand up?

If you think that the character Nellie Oleson is just too mean to be true, you’re partly right.  Nellie Oleson is a character that Laura Ingalls Wilder created from THREE different girls that she knew.  There was a storekeeper’s daughter in Minnesota, the setting of On the Banks of Plum Creek and the television show, named Nellie Owens, and there was another girl in the school, equally snotty, named Genevieve Masters. 

 

Genevieve’s family also moved to DeSmet, South Dakota, the setting of the last three Little House books.  It seems that Genevieve was that one school rival that keeps turning up…doesn’t that seem to happen to a lot of people?  The Ingalls family even got stuck boarding other parts of the Masters family during the Long Winter; she wrote them out of the stories.

 

A third girl, Stella Gilbert, is the one who Almanzo brings along on buggy rides in These Happy Golden Years until Laura tells him to choose one of them. 

 

I always thought Wilder took poetic license by writing Nellie into DeSmet, but the Ingalls did know the Masters both in Minnesota and DeSmet.  The poetic license is that Laura really had to deal with two nasty girls in Minnesota and one nasty/one annoying girl…both pretty…in DeSmet.

 

You can find photos and blog posts about the Nellie Oleson amalgam easily, or you can have the fun of digging through Wilder’s biography, with its copious notes and photographs, in Pioneer Girl, as I did.

If you want to know more, there is a group biography of the three Nellies called The Three Faces of Nellie that shows more aspects of the story of westward expansion in the U.S.

More Memoirs from the Little House on the Prairie

Charlotte Stewart is the only person who was an adult actor on Little House to write a memoir.

I haven’t managed to get my hands on Stewart’s book, but honestly it is the one I most want to read. I’m interested in contrasting the story of an experienced adult actor with those of the child actors.

Wendy Lou Lee, who played “Grace” (the Ingalls sister born late in the series) wrote a devotional book.

And Melissa Gilbert wrote a cookbook. Uh, ok. Even though she had already written a memoir and other people have written historically accurate/researched cookbooks.

And seriously the Ingalls family were depicted both in the books and on T.V. as eating better than they probably did most of the time.

Melissa Francis played “Cassandra Cooper” and is a journalist for Fox News in her adult life.

Share your thoughts! We want to hear your perspective and most definitely your reading recommendations!