Thursday, September 29, 2011

Book Review: Prairie Tale

A Book You Can Buy From Me

Book Title: Prairie Tale

Author: Melissa Gilbert

Author's web page:

Date: 2009

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

ISBN: 978-1-4165-9914-2

Length: 366 pages

Illustrations: color photo inserts

Quote: "To me, at forty-four years old, my book was a search for truth and identity. To [my mother]...the ultimate betrayal."

Mothers of forty-four-year-olds should not try to tell us what to write. I can relate. Unfortunately, the more I read of Prairie Tale, the more I found myself agreeing with Melissa's adoptive mother, whose name is carefully omitted from this book: "Write and get it all out...but the classy thing would be to burn it after you're finished." This is the sort of memoir we would have expected Nellie from Little House on the Prairie to write, not Laura. The show was aimed at families; the book is strictly for adults.

(What sort of memoir would the girl who played Nellie have grown up to write? I've not read Alison Arngrim's memoir yet, but it's available here.)

Plenty of celebrity memoirs tell uglier tales. Let's just say that when people go into detail about how "nauseous" they were ("nauseous" is to "nauseated" as "poisonous" is to "poisoned"), they're still nauseous.

Much of what we learn about the real girl who played the fictional Laura Ingalls is the sort of thing we wanted, and had some right, to know. The naming of actors is often one of the more interesting parts of their biographies. In Prairie Tale we learn that Melissa Gilbert's adoptive father's name had been Ed McMahon, but the Actors Guild made him change it, and by the time he adopted the baby he and his wife named Melissa his name was Paul Gilbert. Ed/Paul was an actor, but hardly successful enough to put Melissa into the "legendary show business family" the blurb on the jacket claims. Presumably the blurb writer was thinking of John Gilbert and Ina Claire, both of whom were movie stars, and neither of whom was noticeably related to Melissa Gilbert.

Then there are the differences in the relationships among characters in books, and actors who play their parts. In Laura Ingalls Wilder's memoirs, as apparently in her real life, Laura and her older sister Mary had some quarrels as children, but grew close after Mary went blind. In the TV show Laura and Mary are almost ideal sisters, but off camera, Gilbert says, she and Melissa Sue Anderson never liked each other. In the books Mrs. Wilder fictionalized all bratty, catty, snobby, or spiteful acquaintances she'd had into her "worst friend" Nellie Oleson. In real life, Gilbert says, Alison Arngrim was her friend; apparently they bonded through having to yell at each other on TV.

In the books, Charles Ingalls is an interestingly tragic character. He consistently fails to provide for his wife and children, but they love him, even though they live on the edge of survival until Mary and Laura are old enough to get jobs. In the TV show, Michael Landon, who had become famous by playing never-quite-grown-up "Little Joe" on Bonanza, wanted to reinvent Charles Ingalls as Perfect Patriarch. TV didn't have a good father character at the time, and both Melissas needed one too. Melissa Gilbert counted that Paul had been married thirteen times before he died, fairly early in her life.

Prairie Tale contains lots and lots of celebrity gossip: which stars Gilbert met, which ones were her friends, which older ones' funerals she attended, and so on. It also describes the "Prairie" episodes that have not been endlessly rerun and may be unfamiliar to readers, mentions Gilbert's grown-up acting jobs and those of her husband Bruce Boxleitner, and includes lots of photos.

Unfortunately she doesn't stop there. We didn't need to know when she lost her virginity, but we're told. We might not have heard all the false rumors that were circulated about her, but we're told about them in enough detail that by page 300 we begin to wonder whether some of them might have been true. We didn't need to know all the details of the short romance and long break-up with Rob Lowe, but we're given practically the teenager's diary version of it. Much more about her husbands and pregnancies could have been left to our imagination than is, and at least three quarters of the formerly unprintable words could have been deleted. The list of alternative titles friends suggested for Prairie Tales is hilarious, but suggestions like "From Half-Pint to S.A.G.-ging Adult" would have been funny enough without including the ones like "Little Hoe on the Prairie."

In reviewing another memoir by a woman who was "America's sweetheart" around the same time Gilbert was, Dorothy Hamill's On and Off the Ice, I've said that Hamill's decision to focus on the memories that will be useful to other young skaters was a wise one. Gilbert waited longer to write her memoir, and was right to make it a longer book; she's had many more experiences and grown far beyond the "Half-Pint" she played in Little House on the Prairie

But she might have learned more from Laura Ingalls Wilder. In the Little House books, there's a very abrupt transition from Laura's little-girl memories in On the Banks of Plum Creek to her early-teenager memories in By the Shores of Silver Lake. What happened during these years? Mrs. Wilder never told anybody. Historians say that Caroline and Charles Ingalls managed a hotel during part of this time. Mary became blind after a long, serious illness. Was Laura ill too, or were her pre-teen years too painful to remember? We'll never know. All we can do is respect Mrs. Wilder's decision to keep her secret. Melissa Gilbert should have kept a few secrets too.