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Jamie Stiehm: New Novel by Patti Davis Helps Bury Old Wounds in Los Angeles

Her life now, more artist than rebel, is on a Santa Monica street under pine trees, where Patti Davis wrote a luminous new novel that seems to break like a wave, reporting ahead of the news.

The daughter of Nancy and Ronald Reagan, Davis creates a canvas of “a broken city” in The Earth Breaks in Colors. The city is Los Angeles, her sprawling hometown, which she knows by canyon, by beach, by freeway.

The iconic Republican president’s daughter is just as liberal and engaged as ever in the questions of the day, but the public voice she speaks in is largely the written word, as the author of 10 books.

Ages ago, she was known for being a sharp critic of her father, a breach that has since healed.

In The Earth Breaks in Colors, Davis anticipates the racial unrest that began in Ferguson, Mo. An interracial friendship between two girls, Whisper and Odelia, is the mainstay of the story, which encompasses many character and complications, and families with bitter histories.

Davis does not flinch from raw racism, addictions, abuse, silences, violence or death. It’s all there, woven in prose that also captures the stark grandeur of Southern California.

Davis said the girls’ friendship was at first portrayed in a state of innocence: “It was beautiful and clear. The world had not intruded yet.”

Then comes the fearsome power of nature shaking the city. This is a plausible event — expected any day now — yet the author lends it a fresh urgency as a day of reckoning.

“It took me where it wanted to go,” Davis says of the story. “When the earthquake happened, all the characters were scattered.”

The trembling changes and clarifies everything, freezing the characters in place amid the jams, closures, collapsed roads and chaos.

One scene is based on what actually happened in Topanga Canyon in a mudslide years ago. Davis once lived in that storied canyon, a haven for artists, writers and musicians.

The narrative’s span is wide, even for one who knows the vast, dry reaches of Los Angeles.

“You learn an awful lot about this city, how divided it is,” Davis said.

For many residents, downtown is almost another country.

In the end, the author brings a vision of peace to the deep conflicts between characters in this ensemble. Shattered in the quake, their eyes, too, are opened.

They see what and who really matters most. Out of time, suddenly past and future are one, and they choose to reconcile. The world is better, sweeter.

Forgive does not mean forget, however, in Davis’ telling: “No matter how carefully we mend what’s been broken, there are scars. Evidence of the past always remains — on the shattered face of a clock. ... And on the heart.”

This outlook is a nice rhyme, an authentic tie-in with Davis’ own life. She has practice at reconciliation, most of all with her own father, the president of the United States. The word for him, she said, was “elusive.”

A conversation about her colorful life and family make the past seem close enough to curl up on the coach where we are sitting. The simple house is white, with candles, green trim and a writing room.

Keeping us company is a pug named Gracie, about whom Davis has written a playful book.

The willowy woman — a Californian in every way — speaks of “the Reagans” with reserve. (She took her mother’s maiden name.)

Then she lights up.

“He was the guy who taught me how to bodysurf and how to ride a horse,” she says. “He put me on his saddle in front.”

For a moment, the private man, Ronald Reagan, is in the room with us — reflected in her eyes.

“So you were the apple of his eye?” I ask.

“My mother was the apple of his eye,” she answers.

Much of her rebellion as a young woman had to do with craving attention from her cheerful, yet distant father.

There was an irony in speaking at peace rallies, she says, “when I was at war with my dad.” In the 1980s, she says, she was more jaded. She regrets the way she expressed her protests.

In his last years, Davis found refuge from all that with her father.

“A lot of healing took place in total silence,” she says. Her father’s blue eyes said a final farewell. 

Jamie Stiehm writes about politics, culture and history as a weekly Creators Syndicate columnist and regular contributor to U.S. News & World Report, The New York Times and The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter: @jamiestiehm. The opinions expressed are her own.

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