Patti Davis and her collaborator have written a "novel" about a girl named Beth Canfield who grows to adulthood under trying circumstances. The time is the late '60s and early '70s, when Vietnam is setting children against parents, and her family proves no exception. Her family's position, though, is exceptional indeed: Her father, Robert Canfield, whose "hardy good looks and persuasive voice sold an awful lot of cars for National Motors," is a conservative Republican who wins the governorship of California and has his eyes on the presidency; he and his fiercely protective wife fear that Beth's outspoken opposition to the war could provide ammunition for his political opponents and thus thwart his ambitions.
This being the basic situation in "Home Front," it is perhaps useful to bear in mind that Patti Davis is the elder child of Ronald and Nancy Reagan. Her qualifications as a novelist may be suspect, as every page of "Home Front" all too vividly reveals, but as an authority on the inner workings of her own family, she must be given her due. It is for this reason that "Home Front" attracts our interest. The book is, as the dust jacket says, an "autobiographical novel," and clearly the emphasis belongs on "autobiographical"; indeed, the reader is left wondering if anything in the book, apart from its thinly altered names and places, is fictional, so strongly does it resemble an intimate memoir.
What may come as a surprise to many readers, though, is that "Home Front" cannot be lightly dismissed as a pulp novel ground out by a president's daughter in hopes of cashing in on her secondhand celebrity. Those who approach it with cynicism and suspicion, as I confess I did, will find it an unexpectedly moving depiction of the painful divisions within families that were created by Vietnam and other controversies of that period. Knowing as we do that the family it depicts now occupies the White House, we are forcibly reminded by the book that no family was immune to these divisions, no matter how fortunate its position, and that even the most powerful individuals can be distracted from their public business by the problems and concerns of their children.
That having been said, let it be emphasized that "Home Front" really doesn't work as fiction; it has no sustained narrative, its prose is for the most part ordinary, and many of its characters were recruited from Central Casting. Had it been written by someone other than Patti Davis, and were it based on the life of an ordinary American family, it almost certainly would not have been published. But given what it is, we read it precisely because it provides a rare and revealing glimpse into the private lives of the first family.
How it will be received by that family is a matter for conjecture, for the portraits of Robert and Harriet Canfield are rather more unsparing than one might expect. Robert Canfield is depicted as a loving but distant father, utterly rigid in his conservative views and unwilling to let anything stand in the way of his political career; in conversation he sounds so much like Ronald Reagan that at times reading the book is a genuinely eerie experience. As for Harriet Canfield, she is as determined as her husband, so impeccably decked out that "she always looked perfectly put together," and a meddlesome mother who subjects her daughter and son to streams of emphatic, conventional counsel and admonition.
The gratuitous advice reaches fever pitch when young Beth goes off to college and joins the counterculture. Not merely does she oppose the war, she also speaks out on feminism, civil rights and other, more voguish, issues of the day. Then, into the bargain, she moves in with a professor of the opposite sex, prompting her father to lament, "Beth, this is very disappointing. What you're telling us is that you're living in sin. Of course, since you don't believe in God, I guess I shouldn't be surprised." The professor, by the way, is the most fully realized secondary character in the novel, an exploitive and manipulative egotist who will be immediately recognizable to anyone with a passing knowledge of academic fauna.
"I wanted so much to smooth things out with my parents," Beth/Patti writes, "but I didn't know how. It seemed that our relationship had deteriorated to little more than a clash of political views, ideologies milling around bumping into each other. The gap that separated us had become a chasm, yet it seemed not that long ago that my father and I had walked up the hill behind the house in the valley, and he listened to my dreams of living in a lighthouse. Now the pain of being strangers was so great I couldn't even spend twenty-four hours under their roof." That poignant grievance was uttered by countless young people during those confusing and disruptive years; to read it as written by the daughter of the man who is now president is evidence enough that when a society shakes to its foundations, no one escapes the tremors.