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Review of ‘Lessons from the Mountain: What I Learned from Erin Walton” by Mary McDonough

Lessons from the Mountain: What I Learned from Erin Walton

By Mary McDonough

Kensington Publishing Corp., 2011

For millions of American television viewers, The Waltons was a Thursday night staple.  It was in my house.  Candidly, I considered the second Walton daughter the least credible character in the whole clan.  Mary McDonough’s Lessons from the Mountain: What I Learned from Erin Walton provides some explanation, connects some dots and offers a glimpse into the girl who portrayed the red-haired Erin and her post-Waltons life.  It also chronicles pranks on the Waltons set (not shot in Schuyler, Virginia but in a studio backlot in Burbank, California), her difficulty in getting other acting gigs, her years of illness, nightmarish experiences with silicone breast implants, and her public speaking and activism.

Looking back on her growing up years on “the mountain,” McDonough
paints a bittersweet picture of gratitude and merriment as well as anxiety and depression.  Lacking any formal training when she was hired to play Erin Walton at age ten, McDonough recounts confusion, angst, fear, anger and frustration when directions on the set were unclear or non-existent.   She also recalls memorable episodes, good-natured teasing and mischief (usually in the kitchen, although once in a “mountain top jacuzzi” a la Richard Thomas and Will Geer),  kindness and camaraderie among the close-knit ensemble that became one of America’s best-loved and most enduring TV families.  She speaks well of fellow cast members and recalls plenty of fun and fond moments, such as working with Jonathan Frakes as her love interest, Ashley Longworth, Jr.  She also mentions at least one (nameless) male guest star and a certain assistant director who vie for Biggest Jerk award and sexual harassment on the set (crew, not cast).

In terms of pacing, McDonough’s style is brisk, engaging, and down-to-earth.  Her tone is direct and appealing, a quirky blend of humor and pathos.  Several pages focus on McDonough’s strict Catholic upbringing which led her to equate unintentional mistakes like a blown line with sin.  “I expanded to include and added other religious teaching to my foundation,” she explains. “Learning acceptance of other faiths, cultures, people, and backgrounds created the space for me to being accepting myself.” She currently embraces an eclectic religious cocktail of Shirley MacLaine-isms, connection with her “Source” and “returning to my inner knowing self.”

If you’re looking for a Waltons memoir, keep looking.  Lessons isn’t just about The Waltons, just like it’s not about lupus, implants, acting, or activism.  As McDonough writes, “I am not just one element of my life.  I have been a child performer, former child performer, nonprofit worker, filmmaker, wife, mother, blogger, activist, actress, writer, acting teacher, and producer” (emphasis in original). Lessons offers a candid “behind the scenes’ look into how and why a frequently frightened, insecure girl grew into a multi-dimensional, sturdy woman.

Hearing the familiar musical lead-in to The Waltons the other day, I noticed something.  When the second Walton daughter came into frame, my reaction wasn’t “There’s Erin,” but rather, “That’s Mary McDonough.”  And that’s a lesson worth learning.