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Kingston on peace: rising from the ashes

The Fifth Book of Peace, by Maxine Hong Kingston. Knopf. 216 pages. $26.

We all fear fire; it's primordial, practically imprinted on our chromosomes. None fears fire like a writer whose life is woven into that delicate, danger-laced weft upon which we weave our words: paper.

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In September 1991, Maxine Hong Kingston was returning to her Oakland, Calif., home after funeral services for her father. The Santa Ana had done what it so often does in California in early autumn: the hot, fierce wind had blown down the coast and swept the tinder of a too-dry landscape into one big bonfire. The hills were ablaze and in among them stood the house Kingston shared with her actor husband, Earll, who was performing in a play out of town at the time.

Police and firefighters had cordoned off the area but all Kingston could imagine rescuing was her novel-in-progress, The Fourth Book of Peace. She left her car and slipped stealthily through smoke-blackened streets and a neighborhood, once familiar, that now resembled a war zone. The rescue was not to be.

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When the flames subsided, Kingston would find parts of her home intact. In brutal irony, the chimney and fireplace remained standing. But as she sifted through the wreckage of her life's possessions, which had included family heirlooms, jewelry her mother had safeguarded through a harrowing trip out of China and a collection of crystal now in molten bits, she came across her manuscript in a block of ash that disintegrated as soon as she touched it. The Fourth Book of Peace - on paper, computer disk and hard drive - was gone.

Writers are a resilient class. Kingston, who has written compellingly of her own resilience and that of her fellow Chinese in previous books such as the National Book Award-winning The Woman Warrior and China Men, commanded the phoenix to rise from The Fourth Book of Peace and create The Fifth Book of Peace .

The book is kaleidoscopic: one finds several books in its four parts - Fire, Paper, Water, Earth - the most mesmerizing of which are the first and last sections.

Pure memoir/memory, "Fire" delineates the fire and its aftermath in detail so visceral that one can almost smell the acridity in the air, feel the burn in the back of the throat, touch the soft cushion of ash that was once The Fourth Book of Peace.

"Paper" explores Kingston's quest for the legendary Chinese Three Lost Books of Peace (hence the titles of the burned book and this one). "Water" re-creates the novel that was The Fourth Book of Peace, the semi-autobiographical tale of Chinese poet Wittman Ah Sing, his white artist wife, Tana, and toddler son, Mario, as they flee from California to Hawaii during the Johnson years of the Vietnam War so Wittman can escape the draft and once in Hawaii create a sanctuary movement for servicemen. In "Earth," Kingston sets about creating a literature of peace with the help of Vietnam veterans whom she has called on for their experiences.

Like all of Kingston's work, The Fifth Book of Peace is long, ruminative, discursive. It is, at heart, a disquisition on peace, strength, survival and hope. Kingston invokes many approaches to her subject, employing English and Chinese, poetry and myth, dreamspeech and memory, pain and healing. Kingston draws clear parallels between the various wars illuminated throughout the book, from Korea to Vietnam to the first Iraq war, and they are eerily confluent with today's Iraqi conflict.

The Fifth Book of Peace begins and ends in quests: for survival, for courage to bear the unbearable, for truth. Employing language that is a lush and vibrant lure skimming the still lake of our collective experience as Americans who have attended far too many wars in far too few years, Kingston reels in the big questions - why war? why not peace? - and displays them with both authority and care.

The Fifth Book of Peace is a big book, chock-full of real, not self, importance. Like all big books, it demands - and deserves - close reading.

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Victoria A. Brownworth writes for many national publications and is the author of numerous books. She teaches writing and film at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. She is currently at work on a book on faith healing.


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