Monday, April 24, 2017

Book Review: Lessons from the Prairie

By Jami Deise

The 1970s was a great time to be a girl who loved stories. Not only were the Little House on the Prairie books ubiquitous, but the TV show was the star of every Monday night. Playing “Little House” was a favorite game for my friends and me. We all fought over who got to be Laura. In fact, some of my very first writings were what I now know was fan fiction… a tale called “Light Up the Sky with Firecrackers,” painstakingly written and illustrated on those tablets given to first graders back then. My mom may still have them. (I know she still has the poem I wrote about loving cats and ants.)

This is my long-winded way of saying that when Chick Lit Central was pitched Lessons from the Prairie, written by former Little House child star and current Fox News reporter Melissa Francis, I was game… but wary. For as much as I loved Little House as a grade-schooler, by the time Melissa Francis joined the show, Mary and Laura were all grown up and I was more interested in General Hospital. Furthermore, my political tastes run more toward the Rachel Maddow end of the spectrum.

Still, I was curious about whatever backstage melodrama Francis might have to offer… as well as the inner workings of a brain on Fox News. Coincidentally, the Little House franchise has recently been claimed by conservatives, pointing to its can-do frontier spirit—and disdain for government and politicians—as proof that the best way to help people is to let their neighbors do it. (This outlook is burnished by the fact that Laura Ingalls Wilder and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane were outspoken in their opposition to FDR’s New Deal. No one had helped them out on the prairie, so why should the government help those crippled by a national unemployment rate of twenty-five percent?)

While Lessons does offer a glimpse of behind-the-scenes life on the set, I might have gotten more bang from my buck by reading Francis’s first book, Diary of a Stage Mother’s Daughter. Lessons tries to offer a few concrete rules from Francis’s time on the show and her current career, but these are buried in long-winded (albeit interesting) anecdotes from her past. Francis’s recollections about how Michael Landon treated everyone on set equally (except for salaries, of course) devolves into memories of the Sony versus Betamax VCR wars. And while Francis recounts a fairly recent meeting with Little House co-star Melissa Gilbert in which the two reminisced about Landon, there’s no mention whether she debated politics with the grown-up Half-Pint, who’s a well-known Democratic activist and union supporter.

Francis airs some of her dirty laundry—she touches on her mother’s mismanagement of her finances (I suppose she goes into detail in her first book), while acknowledging her mother deserved some kind of compensation for the hours she spent managing Francis’s career. She’s also upfront about her early reporting missteps and the truth about her appearance before the Fox hair and makeup folks have their way with her. I appreciated the tales of her early gumption in going after news jobs—she called up small TV stations, pretended to have already lined up interviews with their rivals, and proposed the “favor” of dropping off her reel while she was in town. That takes chutzpah, something young women fresh out of college—even if that college is Harvard—seem to lack, while their male counterparts have in spades.

Still, the book’s shortcomings left me unable to appreciate the few lessons she detailed. Francis holds a degree in economics from Harvard, yet the book is written at a fifth-grade level. Did her publisher assume that readers attracted to Francis’s story would only comprehend writing at that level, or is this her true voice? Fox declares that while its commentators are unabashed conservatives, its reporters—Francis is on the financial beat—are unbiased. Yet Francis doesn’t try to hide her conservative leanings, even repeating the tired joke about Al Gore inventing the internet. (I find this lie particularly galling—as a financial reporter, Francis should know that Gore rightly took credit only for authoring the legislation that funded DARPAnet’s transition to the internet, not for its creation.) Honestly, I was interested in how Francis developed her political beliefs –she calls herself a Republican as early as her freshman year at Harvard—yet there’s no self-reflection on how she came to believe what she believes.

The behind-the-scenes at Fox News stories are equally sparse. While Francis gushes over Megyn Kelly, she doesn’t seem to have an opinion on Kelly’s revelations in her own book, nor the timing of its release. She mentions that Roger Ailes repeatedly talked about bedding her, but her blasé reaction to his come-ons hints that the women who sued him for sexual harassment just aren’t as strong as she is. She belittles Democrat Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” philosophy, advising young women to choose careers that are flexible with the demands of motherhood. Yet she doesn’t talk at all about how difficult it is for women who have “leaned out” for a few years to resume their careers at the same place they left them, or even to be taken seriously at all once they have pared back to take care of their children.

Despite the book’s shortcomings, there is an authenticity that comes across in Francis’s writing. She doesn’t hold herself up as a model for women who want to balance a high-profile career with demanding (she has three children) motherhood. She’s honest about her weaknesses as a reporter (although she seems unable to see the other side of issues she’s covering). And the overall lesson she imparts—there’s no substitute for hard work—is one she practices as well as preaches.

And lastly, Francis recognizes and appreciates the shining light that is Oprah. As Oprah was one of President Obama’s earliest and most fervent supporters, if Francis can still value her, perhaps she’s not quite as conservative as she leads readers to believe.

Thanks to Weinstein Books for the book in exchange for an honest review.


Anonymous said...

Looks like a good one.
Vera Wilson
snoopysnop1 at yahoo dot com

Janine said...

Great review!

Anonymous said...

Thank you! The only reason this book mentions LHOP is because she, and presumably her editor, knew that's the only way to sell this book. She shows clear distain for the show when it is mentioned. Previous reviews claimed it was hilarious. Perhaps, if you like tired, recycled jokes. Her "lessons" are nothing new. Read her previous book. Don't waste your time with this one.