Hardcover, Kindle and Audio
Published 6, 2012 by Weinstein Books
The Glass Castle meets The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother in this dazzlingly honest and provocative family memoir by former child actress and current Fox Business Network anchor Melissa Francis. When Melissa Francis was eight years old, she won the role of lifetime: playing Cassandra Cooper Ingalls, the little girl who was adopted with her brother (played by young Jason Bateman) by the Ingalls family on the world's most famous primetime soap opera, Little House on the Prairie. Despite her age, she was already a veteran actress, living a charmed life, moving from one Hollywood set to the next. But behind the scenes, her success was fueled by the pride, pressure, and sometimes grinding cruelty of her stage mother, as fame and a mother's ambition pushed her older sister deeper into the shadows.
Diary of a Stage Mother's Daughter is a fascinating account of life as a child star in the 1980's, and also a startling tale of a family under the care of a highly neurotic, dangerously competitive "tiger mother." But perhaps most importantly, now that Melissa has two sons of her own, it's a meditation on motherhood, and the value of pushing your children: how hard should you push a child to succeed, and at what point does your help turn into harm?
My Thoughts on Diary of a Stage Mother’s DaughterFormer child actress and current Fox news anchor Melissa Francis joins Allison Arngrim, Melissa Gilbert and Melissa Sue Anderson as Little House on the Prairie actresses who have penned memoirs. Ms. Francis’ tome, however, is more like Ms. Arngrim’s, in exposing a dysfunctional nuclear family in which one member was on an enormously popular television show, than Ms. Anderson’s, which is primarily about the show itself. (I have not read Ms. Gilbert’s as of this date so I cannot comment on the focus of her book). I am an unapologetic Little House fan and within a day of hearing of this book’s release, I contacted the publisher and had a copy on the way to me.
Diary of a Stage Mother’s Daughter was not at all the read I expected. Not to say it’s a bad read; far from it, it’s a painfully honest and raw look at a family that moves at the whim of one member. But if you’re looking for a book almost exclusively devoted to Little House, you will be disappointed. Ms. Francis does give some behind the scenes details on Michael Landon’s penultimate show, including Landon’s jokester personality, as well as his drive for perfection, the horrible stage makeup that made each actor look as if they belonged more so in Willy Wonka’s Oompa Loompa land than on the prairie and the torture required to get those prairie braids. Her biggest “reveal” may be the blatant lack of education that many child actors were exposed to. She writes that the parents of those children “homeschooled” them but homeschooling was little more than blowing off education altogether so that the kids were available to audition and work. She writes of knowing a fifth grader who had never heard of long division but that went on to win an Academy Award and an actress on Little House who, not being allowed to leave the classroom until she could spell “prairie”, had to have lunch brought in. Since Ms. Francis’ time on the show was short (only two seasons), Little House is but a small portion of the book. The main drive of the book is her tumultuous relationship with her mother and her difficult relationship with her sister, Tiffany - - also a child model and actress.While Ms. Francis’ mother is not presented in the Mommie Dearest stereotype, she would certainly make Judy Garland’s mother (known as the ultimate stage mother) sit up and take notes. She was desperate for both Melissa and Tiffany to be successful and famous, despite what their own wishes might be. Her life revolved around preparing her daughters for auditions, taking them to auditions and accompanying them on jobs . . . all while passively aggressively blaming them for any failures and for her own unhappiness.
In contrast to the stage mother routine seemingly making Melissa stronger, it has the opposite effect on Tiffany, who shuns the entertainment industry by adolescence and turns inward, to alcohol, drugs and inappropriate behavior and friends.Ms. Francis’ father also plays a role in this sad sack of a family, both as a weakly complicit co-conspirator with his wife and a victim of her mood swings, erratic behavior and anger. However, his love and compassion for Melissa is evident throughout the course of the book, as well as her own deep love for him. I wish that he had stood up for his children more but having never walked in his shoes, living with a wildly unpredictable woman who likely was suffering from some type of chemical imbalance or mental issues, I suppose I can’t judge.
While I wouldn’t term Diary of a Stage Mother’s Daughter a happy read, I came away from the book being very impressed with Melissa Francis. Having only “known” her previously as Cassandra on Little House, she is obviously much deeper than that one role. A Harvard graduate, who also attended classes at Stanford, she is very intelligent and seemed to have a good, solid head on her shoulders from the beginning. (Unfortunately something that could possibly have helped her sister Tiffany during their upbringing). It’s nice to read of a child actor who had more interests than merely stardom and money and who managed to voluntarily walk away from the industry and career prospects for education and a career not involving auditions and series renewals.I am happy that Ms. Francis has found herself with her career, with her supportive husband and their two children. She came a long way from the prairie and emerged victorious and I say way to go, Melissa Francis!
For readers who enjoy a good memoir I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Diary of a Stage Mother’s Daughter. I would also encourage fans of Little House on the Prairie to pick this book up. Despite the relative brevity of the beloved show, it’s always worthwhile to read of the reality of what truly went on with the actors and actresses on the show.Diary of a Stage Mother’s Daughter by Melissa Francis is available at major booksellers, including Amazon. I am an Amazon affiliate. If you make a purchase through my link, I will receive a small commission.
Review copy of this book provided by the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review. In no way did the provision of this book affect the outcome of my review.
With thanks to Georgina Levitt at WeinsteinBooks for making this review possible.