Melissa Gilbert and I were born the same year—1964. So I relate to every pop culture reference in her books. We have similar perspectives about the world, despite our vastly different lives. She was a child actor on the long-running TV series Little House on the Prairie. I watched it with my parents practically every week. Two women’s lives don’t get more different from that. Still, Gilbert tells her unique story in a relatable way and I sped through both books.
She released Prairie Tale: A Memoir in 2009. And just this May, Gilbert published her follow-up, called Back to the Prairie: A Home Remade, A Life Rediscovered. As it happened, I read the earlier book digitally and then immediately listened to the second as an audiobook read by the author.
Gilbert admits that she felt inadequate working alongside Hollywood “beautiful people.” She is self-effacing about what she calls her “dorky” looks and behavior. And almost every kid feels some of that growing up. We just don’t all have parents who throw fancy cocktail parties. Nor do most of us have celebrities orbiting our lives. Although she’s adopted, her family had deep connections to Hollywood that helped her career. However, working in Hollywood also challenged her feelings of self, even while she starred in a TV series.
In between her industry stories, Gilbert shares three big challenges: addiction, marriages, and chronic pain. Being a young adult in Southern California during the 80s, she accessed both alcohol and drugs easily and often. This propensity didn’t hurt her career much but certainly affected her marriages. And I suspect it impacted her choice of husband—more than once. As a working actor, Gilbert often rode horseback and did other physical elements of the production. In the process, her back and neck were both injured and worn out. So, the chronic pain also circled back to her struggle with addiction.
I loved reading both books together since they became her comprehensive life story. Gilbert focuses the second book on the property in the Catskill Mountains that she and her current husband own. Originally neglected and run-down, they purchased it shortly before COVID 19 hit the world. It offered them a place away from Manhattan that both challenged them and offered them solace.
All in all, I connected easily with Gilbert’s story and style, despite her obvious celebrity. The story arc, especially in Back to the Prairie, is one of accepting ourselves as we age and despite our flaws. I think anyone over 50 relates to this process.
On the other hand, even as Gilbert describes her debt or limited resources, she also admits to her privilege. And that privilege does show. But it’s less obvious in the second book since she focuses on the saving grace of getting “back to nature.”
Gilbert’s writing style is wry and not conceited. She seems honest and certainly knows how to tell a good story. There are moments from her copious TV work, stories about the Brat Pack years, and lots about being a working mom. This is not about being a “perfect” star, actor, mom, or wife. It’s about one woman’s reality.
If you’re under 45 and never watched Little House in syndication or streaming, Melissa Gilbert probably isn’t a celebrity in your eyes. So perhaps this book isn’t a good fit. But these books are perfect for women over 50 who need a dishy, self-deprecating, and even inspiring memoir or two. I enjoyed the heck out of both books.