<B>Kingston's triumphant return</B> Fire is fickle, unpredictable: a simple flame can warm and brighten, while a roaring conflagration can raze and kill. But fire holds the power to transform, and <B>The Fifth Book of Peace</B>, by Maxine Hong Kingston, the National Book Award-winning author of The Woman Warrior, is an eloquent testament to that fact. This work, Kingston's first in more than a decade, is an unusual weave of memoir and fiction resounding with poignant voices that speak to the search for a new lexicon of peace.
"If a woman is going to write a Book of Peace, it is given her to know devastation," Kingston's first line announces. While this proclamation may sound overwrought, it aptly frames the author's heart-pounding firsthand account of the October 1991 Oakland-Berkeley Hills firestorm. This blaze, which took lives and homes, the author's house included, also consumed her <I>Fourth Book of Peace</I>, a novel-in-progress. After the fire, Kingston realized that she had to write anew about peace, but from a different perspective. To research the new narrative, as Kingston recounts, she traveled to China in search of three mysterious Books of Peace. But they proved elusive, and while traveling she met a Chinese cultural minister who encouraged her to deepen her quest: "You imagined Books of Peace . . .
You write them yourself." Dismayed, she realizes, "It is my responsibility to pull the Book of Peace out of nothing." Kingston first re-created a smaller fiction from her lost novel, the story of Wittman Ah Sing, a young Chinese-American who takes refuge in Hawaii to avoid the Vietnam draft. She also invited war veterans, protesters and activists to submit writings on war, which she incorporated into the narrative. The result is a hybrid book containing intense prose that leaps like the fire it describes, as well as quieter passages that meander evocatively as the author searches for the lost Books of Peace. Kingston's latest work is an extraordinary personal primer on making peace. She concludes, "I am coming up with a new rule for living: Only do things that make you happy, and you will create a peaceful world." Kingston, word by word, is doing just that. <I>Alison Hood is a freelance writer based in San Rafael, California.</I>