The Fifth Book of Peace
Most of Maxine Hong Kingston’s prose (like the National Book Award-winner The Woman Warrior ) mixes fiction and non-fiction, and The Fifth Book of Peace is no exception. Here, however, instead of blending into each other in some postmodernist mix of novel and history, the two forms are separated.
The Fifth Book of Peace has five parts. In the opening section, Kingston tells the story of the horrific October, 1991, Oakland fire, when her house, and all her possessions—including the draft of her novel-in-progress—were consumed.
In the second, shorter section, she relates the history of the mythic Chinese “Three Lost Books of Peace.” Section three is the reconstruction of her own, fourth book of peace, the novel that was destroyed in the fire, the story of Wittman Ah Sing (the hero of Kingston’s earlier Tripmaster Monkey ) and his wife and young son immigrating to Hawaii during the Vietnam War and getting caught up in the anti-war movement there. In the fourth section, Kingston describes her peace efforts in the early 1990’s, when, after the fire, Vietnam veterans started sending her stories of their own losses and she organized workshops for the writer veterans. The epilogue brings those efforts up to date. The whole work becomes in effect the Fifth Book of Peace.
Kingston’s book is thus an unfinished novel enclosed by personal stories of loss (the Oakland fire) and reclamation (the workshops where Vietnam veterans work out their involvement in the war). The different parts don’t perfectly coalesce, but all are finally about peace. “Things that fiction can’t solve must be worked out in life,” Kingston writes here, and The Fifth Book of Peace is her most poignant attempt to do just that.