A Girl's Guide to Missiles: Growing Up in America's Secret Desert

A Girl's Guide to Missiles: Growing Up in America's Secret Desert

A poignant, surreal, and fearlessly honest look at growing up on one of the most secretive weapons installations on earth, by a young woman who came of age with missilesThe China Lake missile range is located in a huge stretch of the Mojave Desert, about the size of the state of Delaware. It was created during the Second World War, and has always been shrouded in secrecy....

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Title:A Girl's Guide to Missiles: Growing Up in America's Secret Desert
Author:Karen Piper
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A Girl's Guide to Missiles: Growing Up in America's Secret Desert Reviews

  • Matt Hiebert

    No, this is not a textbook about military ordinance. For me, A Girl's Guide to Missiles is a story about “emergence.”

    It is the memoir of a woman coming of age in the 80s, rising out of a barren culture of inflexible religion within the desert setting of China Lake, one of America's foremost weapons development facilities.

    The story begins with Piper as a child, relocating from the Pacific Northwest to the hardscrabble of a southern California military base. She is close to her mother. Her sister

    No, this is not a textbook about military ordinance. For me, A Girl's Guide to Missiles is a story about “emergence.”

    It is the memoir of a woman coming of age in the 80s, rising out of a barren culture of inflexible religion within the desert setting of China Lake, one of America's foremost weapons development facilities.

    The story begins with Piper as a child, relocating from the Pacific Northwest to the hardscrabble of a southern California military base. She is close to her mother. Her sister is a beloved rival. Her father is a shy, born-again Christian, who only wants to do right by his family.

    Through the first act of the story, we see Piper moving through the world of Christian indoctrination and growing up within the weapons industry that employs both her parents. We watch her rigid religious education, the misogynistic office politics her mother must endure, and her father's bewilderment with coworkers, supervisors and his renegade daughter.

    We glimpse the mishaps of missile testing, but also are allowed to feel the values of a sincere, patriotic family who prays for war because it's good for business.

    Along the way, however, something misfires, and it is Piper, herself, who becomes the errant missile.

    As she enters adulthood – and the world of higher education -- the young woman who cried with joy when Reagan was elected President, is exposed to new philosophies, new people and the possibility of love. She moves to Eugene, Oregon to enter the postgraduate world of academia and......

    You're welcome to find out the rest for yourself.

    Piper's ability to move through the timeline of her life while maintaining narrative consistency, even as her values and perspective change radically through the years, made a Girl's Guide a wonderful read for me. It helps that I grew up during these decades. There were many times I remembered where I was standing during Piper's own milestones. She is someone I might have know back in the day.

    The memoir is more than a personal/political coming of age story. It is a well-researched, engaging tale that lets us not only see, but understand, why Piper's hyper-conservative upbringing was the only origin story possible for the woman who would eventually emerge from that arid California desert and its culture of dogma and war.

  • Jenny (Reading Envy)

    This book is about the author's childhood in the Mojave Desert while her parents worked designing missiles at China Lake. It's also about civilian vs military life, fundamentalism, and how much of childhood can be held on to. I enjoyed some funny descriptions of Eugene and Oregon weather from the perspective of someone accustomed to desert climate. I got a little bogged down in the middle but appreciated how so many topics come back around in the end, with one big surprise.

    I had a funny moment

    This book is about the author's childhood in the Mojave Desert while her parents worked designing missiles at China Lake. It's also about civilian vs military life, fundamentalism, and how much of childhood can be held on to. I enjoyed some funny descriptions of Eugene and Oregon weather from the perspective of someone accustomed to desert climate. I got a little bogged down in the middle but appreciated how so many topics come back around in the end, with one big surprise.

    I had a funny moment where she is doing the pledge of allegiance to the Christian flag, and to the Bible, and I flashed back to Awanas and Vacation Bible School - some of her childhood religious surroundings were identical to mine. And then when she talks about the books she read in school about missionaries breaking the rules - I also read those as a child! Bizarre.

    The writing about the landscape that appears from time to time can really be evocative:

    "A fierce wind kicked in and the sky smelled of creosote bushes, that musky electric smell, which meant it was raining nearby."

    Military life:

    "After a while, knowing that war fills your bellies, peace can feel like starvation."

    "Growing up in a war town does not mean you know a thing about war."

  • Liz

    Perhaps 4 stars worth of enjoyment, but only 3 based on comprehensive, coherent delving into specific topics. I always enjoy memoir non-fiction, as a personal perspective provides "story" in addition to information. I liked the behind-the-scenes look at weapons development from the late Viet Nam War era onwards, and would have liked even more detail than we got. Not sure how much that limitation was due to the classified nature of some of the missile programs being discussed, or just in the inte

    Perhaps 4 stars worth of enjoyment, but only 3 based on comprehensive, coherent delving into specific topics. I always enjoy memoir non-fiction, as a personal perspective provides "story" in addition to information. I liked the behind-the-scenes look at weapons development from the late Viet Nam War era onwards, and would have liked even more detail than we got. Not sure how much that limitation was due to the classified nature of some of the missile programs being discussed, or just in the interest of brevity/focusing on other topics.

  • Emmkay

    Readable, slightly meandery memoir. The author grew up on the China Lake Station in California during the Cold War, where both her parents worked in weapons development. The parts of the book about this strange milieu and about her parents were especially interesting, as was the part about her sojourn at a downright disturbing private Christian school, where the children silently completed booklets in cubicles. Lost its way a little in a thicket of romantic relationships and a failed marriage (w

    Readable, slightly meandery memoir. The author grew up on the China Lake Station in California during the Cold War, where both her parents worked in weapons development. The parts of the book about this strange milieu and about her parents were especially interesting, as was the part about her sojourn at a downright disturbing private Christian school, where the children silently completed booklets in cubicles. Lost its way a little in a thicket of romantic relationships and a failed marriage (which seems to have left Piper with some weird ideas about Canadians), and was a bit choppy towards the end.

  • Jean

    I am very familiar with China Lake. I found this book interesting about growing up on the China Lake Naval Base. Piper’s parents both were scientist working on the base. Piper tells of her life as a child growing up on the base and as an adult working on the base. I was disappointed that Piper did not go into detail about life as a child in a small, closed and structured community.

    The book has quite a bit of humor. Overall, I was disappointed in the book. Maybe because I also grew up in the area

    I am very familiar with China Lake. I found this book interesting about growing up on the China Lake Naval Base. Piper’s parents both were scientist working on the base. Piper tells of her life as a child growing up on the base and as an adult working on the base. I was disappointed that Piper did not go into detail about life as a child in a small, closed and structured community.

    The book has quite a bit of humor. Overall, I was disappointed in the book. Maybe because I also grew up in the area, I expected more from the book. There was also a number of inaccuracies in the book.

    I read this as an audiobook downloaded from Audible. The book is ten hours twenty-eight minutes. Rebecca Lowman does a good job narrating the book. Lowman is an award-winning actress and has won the Earphone Award as a narrator.

  • Rebecca

    I received a free copy of this e-book from the publisher (via NetGalley) in exchange for an honest review.

    2.5 Stars

    I wanted this book as soon as I saw the title. If I ever wrote a book about my passion for Cape Canaveral, I would have used that title. By the end of the book, I felt the title was used because it sounds good, not because it accuratly reflects what happens in the book.

    I am fascinated by the history of missile test sites, especially the oldest ones which emerged in the 40's and 50'

    I received a free copy of this e-book from the publisher (via NetGalley) in exchange for an honest review.

    2.5 Stars

    I wanted this book as soon as I saw the title. If I ever wrote a book about my passion for Cape Canaveral, I would have used that title. By the end of the book, I felt the title was used because it sounds good, not because it accuratly reflects what happens in the book.

    I am fascinated by the history of missile test sites, especially the oldest ones which emerged in the 40's and 50's. I knew of China Lake's test area, but I hadn't dug too much into it's history (I prefer the air breathing missiles and ICBMs). This book seemed like the perfect introduction.

    While both the author and her parents worked at China Lake in various capacities, it felt like very little of the book was about what went on there. The book is more the story of the author's life, including various boyfriends, her brief job in the payroll department, going to college, getting married and her father's descent into Alzheimer's. I'm sorry, I got this book to hear about life in China Lake, not about trying to sell Amway.

    At one point, she mentions the abandoned Lark missile ramp. Lark missiles were also tested at Cape Canaveral - but there was no ramp involved. I want to know more! But alas, the author has moved on to something else.

    I suppose this book would be good if you liked memoirs of non-celebreties. It was definitly not what I hoped it would be.

  • Aria

    ---- Disclosure: I received this book for free from Goodreads. ---

    ---- Disclosure: I received this book for free from Goodreads. ---

  • Pamela

    Hmmm . . . I'm not sure what to say.

    Dynamic times to grow up in, I'm sure. Certainly enough material for an interesting memoir. Plus, Karen Piper has a funny bone - a bit droll, but funny all the same. The book is also culturally expository: cold war fears and fads, Manson and other newsworthy craziness, Watergate, Aliens and Cults, Beatlemania. However, not everything was out and out factual.

    And though I didn't expect State or military Secrets leaked across the pages, I did expect a bit more

    Hmmm . . . I'm not sure what to say.

    Dynamic times to grow up in, I'm sure. Certainly enough material for an interesting memoir. Plus, Karen Piper has a funny bone - a bit droll, but funny all the same. The book is also culturally expository: cold war fears and fads, Manson and other newsworthy craziness, Watergate, Aliens and Cults, Beatlemania. However, not everything was out and out factual.

    And though I didn't expect State or military Secrets leaked across the pages, I did expect a bit more rocketry and China Lake atmosphere than what's included.

    Then there's this: the writing was exceptionally clunky; some sentences shot so far off course I had no idea what point the author was trying to make. No joy.

    So . . .

    Hmmm....

    TWO ** The Missile Fell Short of the Target, But Wasn't a Total Dud ** STARS

  • Penmouse

    Very few books make me angry but A Girl's Guide to Missles by author Karen Piper angered me enough that I quit reading her book. I returned her book to Amazon due to Piper's poor research and due to the book's poor editing.

    I have a deep understanding of China Lake history and how China Lake operates. China Lake was founded by the United States Navy during World War II. Today, China Lake supports national defense through research and development. A little known fact is China Lake's role in devel

    Very few books make me angry but A Girl's Guide to Missles by author Karen Piper angered me enough that I quit reading her book. I returned her book to Amazon due to Piper's poor research and due to the book's poor editing.

    I have a deep understanding of China Lake history and how China Lake operates. China Lake was founded by the United States Navy during World War II. Today, China Lake supports national defense through research and development. A little known fact is China Lake's role in developing the popular Glow Stick. Glow Sticks were originally developed to help with military search and rescue, if I remember right, and are now used by many children to promote Halloween safety. Dare I digress.

    Piper reports in her book her father designed the Sidewinder missile. In fact, the Sidewinder missle was conceived by Dr. William McClean in the mid-1950s. Many engineers and scientists have worked on the Sidewinder program throughout the years. McClean headed the engineering team though. Piper also relates her living at China Lake was filled with low flying aircraft near public areas, ordnance laying around, and how there were no religious services available at China Lake. All these things are incorrect. Naval aviators take great pride in flying safely. In fact, a local school was named after a naval aviator who elected to ride his failing jet to the ground to prevent hitting the elementary school. Ordnance testing is done on distant ranges and nowhere near public facilities including China Lake housing. Religious services have always been part of China Lake. The All Faith Chapel, I do believe was one of the original buildings constructed, and has been providing services to Catholics, Jews, Muslims and Protestants who live and work at China Lake.

    There are other fact-based issues wrong with this book which I won't detail here.

    If you do read this book, do realize her book is based on her personal experiences and biases. The historical research is a bit lacking and suspect. As I wrote earlier I returned the book as it was poorly researched, edited and written.

    Do not recommend.

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