(Masterpieces of American Literature)

When the hillside fires raged into Oakland in 1991 and demolished the Kingston home, Maxine Hong Kingston was devastated. She lost to the flames The Fourth Book of Peace, a long labor of love that revisited Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book and carried out Kingston’s resolve to bring her characters to resolution by depicting them at older, perhaps wiser stages of their existence. Devastated especially since the fire followed close on the death of her father, she found herself unable to write. Her idea for the book had originally come from the search for the ancient Chinese Books of Peace, venerable books lost to war but supposedly capable, if rediscovered, of ending war. Given her own lifetime struggle against war and her willingness to go to jail to defend her right as a citizen to protest American wars abroad, she had invested much of herself into this “longbook”—now ashes. She went through a period of writer’s block, unable to return to this lost project. What resulted is a complex stream-of-consciousness memoir that questions why war exists and how the world can be educated into creating peace. The second section of this new book, entitled “Paper,” recounts her search for the Three Books of Peace, burnt by a warrior society.

This book marks her recovery from that loss and rises like a phoenix from the ashes, a re-creation that begins with an almost poetic description of the fire and its aftermath in a section appropriately entitled “Fire.” Therein she captures the way in which shared disaster makes friends of strangers and forces one to reconsider what is important, lasting, and valuable. Her recurring admonition, a mantra for our time, is, “In a time of destruction, create something.”...

(The entire section is 713 words.)