book reviews, celebrities

A review of Bright Lights, Prairie Dust: Reflections on Life, Loss, and Love from Little House’s Ma, by Karen Grassle…

If you were growing up in the 70s and 80s, it’s a fair bet that you might know who Karen Grassle is. For eight years, she played Caroline Ingalls– Ma– on the hit NBC show, Little House on the Prairie. I was born in 1972, so I was a child when that show was airing on prime time. I remember watching it on Monday nights, probably starting at the time I was about eight years old or so. By then, the show had been airing for some time, and was starting to jump the shark a bit. It wasn’t until I started watching reruns on TBS during my college years that I really became a fan.

Although I loved Little House, I wasn’t necessarily a fan of Michael Landon’s. I always thought he was kind of weird. One time, I saw a comedian do a hilarious imitation of the way he smiled, screwing his eyes a bit and twitching his jaw, as if he was trying to keep from crying. The comedian had him down perfectly, and every time I see Landon on screen, I’m reminded of it, as well as why he never came across as particularly handsome to me. Edited to add: I think the comedian might have been Jim Carrey. Here’s a clip.

When I got older, I started to understand why people found Michael Landon so charismatic. He had this “saint like” image that he tried to project in his projects. A lot of people were fooled by him, thinking that he was much like his saintly characters, especially Charles Ingalls– which was probably his most famous role. He was well-known for being generous, and he certainly had a gift for making television programs that appealed to the masses. A lot of women thought he was “hot”, too, although it’s clear to me that he knew it, which I find kind of repellant.

As Karen Grassle points out in her recently published memoir, Bright Lights, Prairie Dust: Reflections on Life, Loss, and Love from Little House’s Ma, there was a lot more to Michael Landon than met the eye. And he was no saint. But then, neither is she. I just finished her eye opening memoir last night, somewhat surprised by her story.

Karen Grassle talks to Megyn Kelly about her book and working with Michael Landon. In this interview, Grassle says Victor French was a “wonderful actor”. And he was. But he also had a problem with alcohol.

Karen Grassle’s life started off normally enough. She was born February 25, 1942 in Berkeley, California. She grew up in Ventura, the daughter of a real estate agent and a teacher. She also has a younger sister named Janey and an adopted son named Zach. When she was very young, Grassle was captivated by her Baptist faith. She studied ballet, acted in school plays, and was popular among her peers.

Grassle’s first year of college was spent in New Orleans, Louisiana at H. Sophie Newcomb Memorial College, which was the women’s branch of Tulane University. Grassle couldn’t hang in New Orleans. She found the atmosphere too offensive with the rampant racism in the South during the early 1960s. With help from her mother, Grassle went back to California and enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley, from which she graduated in 1965, with bachelor’s degrees in English and Dramatic Art.

After college, Grassle won a Fulbright Scholarship and moved to London for a year. Living in London gave Grassle the chance to travel around Europe, and she writes a bit about her experiences seeing the continent. She even includes a passage about riding on a train with a young Italian man and his father and having sex with the Italian guy while his father snored beneath them. I could relate to the train experience to Italy, minus the sex part. I once rode in a sleeper car with an Asian family on my way from Vienna to Venice and listened to the dad of the family snore all night. A little sex might have done me some good.

Grassle later moved to New York City, where she struggled financially, and picked up roles at the many theaters there. She drank a lot and smoked too much, and picked up interesting odd jobs to make ends meet, including a stint working as a size eight model for garment makers. Although she worked steadily, she didn’t really become financially successful in any sense until she moved back to California and auditioned for the role of Caroline Ingalls. The rest is history.

Yesterday, I wrote about Betty White, and how I think sometimes people mistook Betty White for her characters. I think the same may be true for Karen Grassle. On Little House on the Prairie, Grassle portrayed a beautiful, God-fearing, kind, gentle woman. Michael Landon portrayed a male version of that same ideal. But, as I mentioned in yesterday’s post, actors are often not at all like the roles they play. That is apparently very true of Karen Grassle and Michael Landon. Grassle writes that the two of them didn’t get along very well after the first year of the show’s eight season run. Although on screen, they looked like they were deeply in love, they really were just acting…

In Bright Lights, Prairie Dust, Grassle gives readers a glimpse of what was going on behind the scenes on Little House, but readers shouldn’t expect an exhaustive tell all about the show. This book is really a book about Karen Grassle. The title is a bit misleading, which is why I think Grassle got some low ratings from Amazon readers. I think a lot of people read Grassle’s book hoping for stories about Little House on the Prairie, and what they got is a book that is pretty much just about Karen Grassle’s life, with only a little bit about the show that made her a star. There’s also quite a bit of throwing Michael Landon under the bus and airing of “dirty laundry”. As someone who also often airs dirty laundry, I can understand why she wrote about these things… but I can also see why other readers found the revelations off-putting.

I mostly enjoyed reading Karen Grassle’s story. I don’t judge her for her life choices or mistakes. We all make them. Karen Grassle admits to being an alcoholic who had many difficult relationships with men, including an unfortunate tryst with actor Gil Gerard (Buck Rogers) that led to a sexually transmitted infection. She’s been married a few times. She’s had a couple of abortions. She turned away from Christianity. She didn’t get along with Michael Landon and, in fact, even judged him for infidelity, even though she had herself been unfaithful to at least one of her partners. I’d say she’s pretty much the antithesis of Caroline Ingalls, a role she played so convincingly.

Karen Grassle writes that she loved working with Scotty MacGregor, otherwise known as Mrs. Oleson.

I’m sure a lot of readers will judge Karen Grassle for not being Caroline Ingalls. I guess I can understand why they might, since the title implies that she’s going to impart wisdom the way “Ma Ingalls” did. But again, I think readers should understand that actors are human, and memoirs are the ultimate project in self-promotion. Of course the book is about Karen Grassle, and Karen Grassle isn’t “Ma Ingalls”. That was just the most famous one of the many roles she’s played over her long career. I, for one, was interested in reading about Grassle’s lesser known work on the world’s stages.

I appreciated reading about Karen Grassle’s work toward promoting women’s rights. She grew up in a time when racism and sexism were rampant, and anyone who wasn’t a white man had less power simply because they weren’t a white male. I think it’s pretty clear that Grassle is politically very liberal, and she feels very strongly about protecting women’s rights, including the right to have an abortion. Grassle had two experiences with abortion. The first one happened when she was 20 years old. She had to go to Mexico, and it was done secretly. The second one was done ten years later, in New York, where in 1972, abortion was legal. She compared the experiences, which I found interesting, and a bit frightening for today’s young women, who may soon lose the right to privacy and bodily autonomy. Some readers may have less sympathy for her, later in the book, when she laments how she eventually wanted a baby of her own. She did eventually adopt a son.

Grassle is also very involved in Jungian therapy, which I found intriguing, since my husband is also into Jungian therapy. She writes a bit about dream analysis, and some of the cool insights she got from some of her therapists. I probably wouldn’t have noticed that part of the book if Bill wasn’t working with a Jungian therapist. If I had read Karen Grassle’s book a year ago, I probably wouldn’t have cared about her revelations regarding Jungian psychology. But I guess it just goes to show you that as one’s life evolves, so do one’s interests.

The one thing I distinctly didn’t like about Karen Grassle’s book was a certain contrived quality it had. It was like she was trying really hard to write in an evocative way that came across as insincere. Her writing wasn’t terrible; it just seemed to lack some authenticity. Like she was trying too hard to turn a phrase or something.

I do think the title of the book is misleading. I’m sure it was purposely given that title to make sales, but plenty of people who bought it for the potential of Grassle’s “spilling the tea” about life on the Little House set will “spill the tea” that the book is only a little bit about the show. There’s very little about the children who played the Ingalls’ children, but she does include a couple of less flattering comments about Victor French (Mr. Edwards), as well as a few more positive comments about Scotty MacGregor (Harriett Oleson) and Charlotte Stewart (Miss Beadle). I think a lot of people will expect much more about the show. They won’t necessarily get that information in this book, which may disappoint some readers.

The last comment I want to make is that the book ends rather abruptly, just as Karen Grassle has married her second husband of three. I’m not sure why she chose to end the book at that point. Maybe it’s because it was just as the show was ending, in the early 1980s. But the book is clearly not just about Little House on the Prairie. Grassle wrote a lot about her young life, her years as a struggling actress, and what led up to her turn as “Ma Ingalls”. If the book had been more about the show, I might understand why she ended in the early 80s. But it’s clearly NOT just about the show. Again… I think a more accurate title would have served her better.

There are some photos included, though they aren’t so easy to see on my Kindle app.

I’m glad Karen Grassle was able to quit drinking, since it clearly affected her in a negative way and was problematic, particularly regarding her relationships with other people, as well as her image. As a fellow adult child of an alcoholic, I could relate to some of her comments about what it was like to grow up in that particular brand of dysfunction. I respect Karen Grassle’s talent, and some of her insights about working with Michael Landon. A lot of her complaints about Landon were about money, and how he allegedly wouldn’t agree to pay her what she felt she should be earning on a hit show.

This book could have been better, and should be retitled… and maybe even retooled. But overall, I’m not sorry I read it. I would just caution prospective readers not to expect a book that is just about Little House on the Prairie, containing heartwarming, homespun, words of wisdom from Ma Ingalls. Bright Lights, Prairie Dust is definitely not delivering much of that, in spite of its title.

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book reviews

Double repost: Missy Francis grew up with the mother from hell… and Review of Lessons from the Prairie: The Surprising Secrets to Happiness, Success, and (Sometimes Just) Survival I Learned on America’s Favorite Show

Here are two book reviews I wrote in 2015 and 2018 respectively. They are based on books by Melissa (Missy) Francis, who was a child actress on Little House on the Prairie and countless commercials in the 1980s. She is now a correspondent for Fox News. I am reposting my reviews of her books here, as is, so if you read them, pretend it’s 2015 or 2018.

Missy Francis grew up with the mother from hell…

Like so many people my age, I grew up watching Little House on the Prairie.  I also used to watch a lot of Saturday morning cartoons.  Both of those television related activities exposed me to a child actress named Missy Francis.

Those eyes are unforgettable…

Not long ago, I read a “where are they now” article about Little House on the Prairie.  Missy Francis, now going by the more formal name, Melissa, was featured in it.  Toward the end of Little House’s run, Missy Francis had played an orphan girl named Cassandra Cooper on the show.  Though she was not one of the main cast members, I did remember her and was interested when the article mentioned that Francis had written a book about growing up a child actress.  I am a sucker for those kinds of books, so I quickly downloaded Diary of a Stage Mother’s Daughter: A Memoir.  I just finished it this morning.

Melissa Francis calls her mother a “stage mother”.  Maybe that is an accurate description of what her mother was when Francis was growing up.  However, I would also call her mother a textbook case of narcissistic personality disorder.  As I read page after page about her mother’s shocking antics, I recognized the behavior all too well.  Melissa’s mom, who had a long suffering husband and two beautiful daughters who starred in television commercials and shows, exploited and abused everyone close to her.  Francis writes of how her mother would shuttle her and her sister to auditions.  When Missy would land a part, her mother would brag to everyone who would listen… and when the paychecks rolled in, her mother would pocket them for herself.  Meanwhile, Melissa’s mother never held down a job herself and would spend other people’s money like there was no tomorrow.  Like all narcissists, Melissa’s mom didn’t have any empathy.  She saw other people as tools to manipulate and use.   

Woe be unto anyone who dared to cross Missy’s mom.  In one heartbreaking chapter, Missy writes of how some neighbors complained about a few feral cats who lived on her parents’ property.  Animal control had apparently tried to address the issue, but got no results.  So they took the Francis family’s dog.  Missy’s dad went to fetch the pooch from the pound.  Meanwhile, Missy’s mother stole the complaining neighbors’ dog, removed the canine’s collar, and deposited her at an animal shelter miles away from their neighborhood.  Since the dog had no collar, no one would know where she belonged.  Her family would never think to look in the shelter so far from home.  And since she was elderly, it was unlikely anyone would want to adopt her.  Missy knew the dog would soon be euthanized.  She wanted to tell her neighbors, but knew if she did, her mother would make her pay for her disloyalty.  So she kept silent and sealed the dog’s fate.  I almost had to stop reading her book after I read that passage.  While I understand why Missy felt she had to be quiet, I was also rather disgusted by her silence.  But then, I am also a dog lover.

Missy’s sister, Tiffany, eventually outgrew acting.  Smart, beautiful, and talented, the older girl eventually went to Berkeley, where she dabbled heavily in drugs and alcohol.  Melissa writes movingly about her relationship with her sister and her sister’s many clashes with their mother.  While Missy was able to make straight As and flourish despite her mother’s excessive control and sniping, Tiffany slid into an abyss of addiction which eventually made her very ill and cost her her life.  Unfortunately, Tiffany was not as resilient as her sister was.  If their mother is narcissistic, and I am certain she is, then Tiffany was probably the scapegoat, while Melissa was the “golden child”.

Surprisingly, Missy’s father, who owned his own company and worked very hard, managed to tolerate his wife’s craziness and be a rock to her daughters.  Perhaps “enable” is a better word for his behavior  than tolerate.  I often wondered why he didn’t do more to save himself and his daughters.  Missy’s dad once told Missy she could be anything she wanted to be if she put her mind to it.  So Missy took control of her life and went to Harvard University, where she was on the polo team and majored in economics.  She met and married her husband, Wray, and eventually became mother to two sons.  When she finally stood up to her mother, who exploited, abused, and stole from her, she found that there was no more relationship.  I am assuming that they are now on a no contact status. While I don’t take pleasure in learning about people who are estranged from their parents, I totally understand why Francis hasn’t spoken to her mom in over a decade.  Unfortunately, when it comes to narcissists, going no contact is the only way to protect yourself from the damage they can wreak. 

Diary of a Stage Mother’s Daughter is not long on details about Little House on the Prairie, so anyone looking for juicy tidbits about that show will likely be disappointed.  However, the book will likely interest anyone who is fascinated by toxic mothers.  Some of the stunts Melissa’s mother pulled are just outrageous.  I often found myself pissed off for Missy Francis and others who were victimized by her mother’s ridiculous behavior.  And, once again, I found myself feeling some empathy for my husband’s daughters, whose mother also displays many of the same abusive, exploitative, hateful, sabotaging and insane behaviors.   

Melissa Francis is now better known as a news reporter.  She currently works for the Fox Business Network and has a show called Money with Melissa Francis.  From what I can see, she has managed to make the best of her life.  I applaud her for that.  I wish everyone raised by a toxic parent could do the same. 

I recommend Diary of a Stage Mother’s Daughter.  It’s basically well-written and a fast read.  I think a lot of people may even find it inspirational.  I do want to mention, though, that Melissa Francis apparently has a now abandoned blog.  The writing in the blog is not nearly as good as the writing in the book, which makes me wonder if it might have been ghost written.  Either that, or Missy’s book was very well edited.  Either way, I think the book is worth reading.  I’d give it three and a half stars at least.

And just because I’m sweet that way, here’s a comment from the original post, apparently left by Missy’s “mom from hell”.

SHAME ON HEROctober 25, 2015 at 4:00 AM

It is amazing to me how someone who has no idea of the truth can write such an ugly review. There are no affairs, drugs, drinking, etc. on my part? R u blind? Missy’s upbringing was quite the opposite but I am sure you do not care. Her father is a convicted felon and has been arrested for drink driving. This can be proved. He was a nightmare. He introduced Tiffany to drugs, drinking and smoking. He is a fall down drunk. Every cent the girls made was spent on them. Missy graduated from Harvard debt free..TIFFANY ditto from Berkeley and law school. Do u notice that there is absolutely no witnesses to anything? EVER? Missy spent most of her teenage years showing her Champion horse Flying Colors. Tiffany’s horse was Duchess. There never was a dognaping. She wrote this tale for financial gain, period. Do some solid research. I never spent one cent on myself. I made sure my girls had excellent educations and everything their hearts desired. I am sure this is falling on deaf ears. Yes, this is all my fault; I should have left him. I had no idea what was wrong w TIFFANY until I asked TIFFANY how her drinking had started and she told me that she used to finish her father’s vodka when he passed out. Why did Missy find it necessary to drag her sister thru the mud? She and I know the truth; she has painted herself into an ugly corner and has no way out. Early on, she admitted the book was fiction only changing it when she could not get a publisher.  

I have five wonderful rescues and shame on you believing such a terrible lie. 

I love my daughters with every fiber of my being. Always have and always will. Pray for Missy, she is lost. 

I have lost a child, for Heaven’s sake! 

knottyOctober 25, 2015 at 8:09 AM

If you are Missy’s mom, I’m not sure this comment really does you any favors. 

And now for reposted review number two…

About three years ago, I read a book written by Melissa Francis, current Fox News commentator and former child actress.  The book was entitled Diary of a Stage Mother’s Daughter: A Memoir.  Melissa Francis dared to write about what it was like to be a child actress with an extremely overbearing mother.  I enjoyed most of her book, although it made me very sad to read about the abuses she and her late sister endured at the hands of what sounds like their very narcissistic mom. 

I don’t follow Melissa Francis on Fox News.  For one thing, I don’t really have access to it here in Germany.  For another, I wouldn’t watch Fox News even if I was able.  However, I did like her fist book enough to read her second, 2017’s Lessons from the Prairie: The Surprising Secrets to Happiness, Success, and (Sometimes Just) Survival I Learned on America’s Favorite Show.  This book is yet another memoir, loosely based on Melissa Francis’ experiences on the hit show, Little House on the Prairie

Melissa and Jason on Little House…  Melissa writes about her ability to cry on demand.  Apparently, that made her a hot commodity as a child actress.

Melissa Francis is a Harvard graduate and is no doubt smart enough to know the connection to Little House would probably be more of a hook than is her Fox News connection.  This book does include some juicy tidbits about what it was like to be on Little House, working with Jason Bateman as her on screen brother, James.  I just recently watched the whole series, so the episodes Francis and Bateman were on are still fresh in my mind.  As a kid, I loved watching Little House on the Prairie.  In those days, TV was a lot more important than it is today… and we also had fewer choices as to what we could watch.  Melissa (then called Missy) and Jason were brought on to inject some new “kid” blood to the cast, since all the other kids who were on the show for years were becoming adults.  Ultimately, neither Missy nor Jason stayed on the series during its final season. 

This book is not just about Little House, though.  It also about Melissa Francis’ life.  She writes very candidly about how difficult her two pregnancies with her sons were.  Her husband, Wray, wanted one more child, but Melissa has an unusual genetic condition that makes her blood pressure shoot up during pregnancy.  A doctor told her in no uncertain terms that she shouldn’t give birth to any more children.  That’s how Melissa and Wray turned to a surrogate mother for their third child, a girl named Gemma.  It’s very clear from Melissa Francis’s book that she and her husband are extremely grateful to the couple who helped make their daughter’s life possible.  Although some people might judge them for turning to surrogacy, it sounded to me like the whole experience was very rewarding.  She even includes a picture of the two families at the end of the book, along with a few photos from her days on Little House

Melissa Francis also writes about how she decided to give up acting in favor of news reporting.  She explains that she didn’t enjoy being someone she wasn’t.  Acting requires convincingly portraying someone who isn’t authentic.  Francis writes that she found that process exhausting and much prefers telling true stories as herself.  As I mentioned previously, I don’t watch Fox News, so I don’t have an opinion of how good Francis is at her job.  However, she has been working for Fox News for some time now and her career has taken off.  Having been a child star, she was no doubt used to rejection.  Francis did experience a lot of rejection as she entered the field of network journalism.  She had to convince people to give her a chance and then prove herself.  It looks like she’s been successful.

There were a few times in her book that Francis hinted at her conservative political leanings.  I would imagine that working for Fox News requires her to at least sympathize with Republicans.  I didn’t necessarily agree with a few of the ideas she presented, most notably her thoughts on the Affordable Care Act.  Francis has a degree in economics and, I’m sure, sees healthcare strictly as a business.  She writes about how requiring insurance companies to cover anyone and everyone was bound to be more expensive. 

As someone who has a health administration background, I see affordable healthcare as something that should be a priority in any community, especially in a so-called “first world” nation like the United States.  Many countries have affordable healthcare.  It’s not just about more coverage being more expensive.  Healthcare does not have to cost as much as it does, and it shouldn’t.  What needs to happen is that the businesses involved with healthcare delivery need to be reined in and not allowed to charge outrageous fees.  Healthcare should not be about pleasing investors and building stock portfolios.  I think it’s morally wrong to force middle income people into insane debt just so they might have the hope of surviving or not having to live in pain.  I don’t know exactly how Melissa Francis feels about all of this– she’s clearly well off herself and probably doesn’t have to worry about going bankrupt if she gets sick.  But to a lot of Americans, this is a real problem and it shouldn’t be.  That’s just my view.

Francis offers a few tidbits of advice.  A lot of her insights are pretty obvious.  I was more into her anecdotes than her advice on good living.  Frankly, I don’t think too many people are legitimately qualified to offer advice.  Some of Francis’ jokes are kind of obnoxious, too.  Sometimes, it seems like she tries a little too hard to be funny or cool and she kind of fails.  I think she was trying to go for a tone that made her seem like a friend, but the reality is, her readers aren’t friends and never could be.  This observation kind of flies in the face of Francis’ comments about wanting to be “authentic” and not liking acting because it forced her to be fake.  I don’t think her writing necessarily comes across as authentic.  Some of it seems trite and kind of overly cutesy.  Also, I thought it was interesting that Francis writes about the absence of God on television, yet uses quite a lot of profanity.  I’m not offended by profanity, but it did seem like maybe she was trying to pander to two different groups of people. 

Overall, I didn’t hate this book.  I see on Amazon that some readers were really turned off by it.  I can’t say I was turned off, per se.  It probably helped that I have just recently seen the episodes of Little House that featured her and could relate to some of the comments she made about how ridiculous some episodes were toward the end of the series.  I didn’t mind some of her snarky comments, either.  However, I liked her first book better than this book, which I think probably could have used another run with an editor.  Also, it’s pretty clear that the title is sort of “click bait” for readers.  It’s a bit misleading, since most of the book isn’t really about Little House at all.  I’d probably give it three stars.

Here are the Amazon links… as an associate, I will get a small commission from Amazon on orders placed through my site.