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.

  • Jodi

    This was an advanced readers copy, that I recieved through the Goodreads Giveaways. I might not have bought this book, if I hadn't won it, but I would have missed out on a sometimes funny, sometimes sweet, and sometimes sad, description of growing up in a place where every life is spent building bombs to wipe out our enemies...from WWII to Korea to Vietnam to Afghanistan and beyond. Karen describes a childhood of secrets learned and kept; of the love (and barely disguised fury) between siblings,

    This was an advanced readers copy, that I recieved through the Goodreads Giveaways. I might not have bought this book, if I hadn't won it, but I would have missed out on a sometimes funny, sometimes sweet, and sometimes sad, description of growing up in a place where every life is spent building bombs to wipe out our enemies...from WWII to Korea to Vietnam to Afghanistan and beyond. Karen describes a childhood of secrets learned and kept; of the love (and barely disguised fury) between siblings, the parents who couldn't talk about their work, the life on a military base in the middle of the desert, church school education, and growing up and moving on - escaping the barren dessert for a life in the outside world. Her description of her father's descent into Alzheimers' darkness is particularly poignant during her ill-fated wedding, when he couldn't remember the phrase she had drilled into him for "giving the bride away". The marriage was doomed to fail, just like the Sidewinder missiles that were made and tested at China Lake, and the foreboding feeling , the sense of doom, that hovers over her story of the brief good times, followed by the bad times, with Keith, feel as immediate as if you are watching them implode in front of you. All in all, this is a hidden gem of a book, warm and relatable, yet, impossibly distant and foreign to non-military brats, and all the more fascinating because of that distance.

  • 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."

  • The Folding

    At its core, Karen Piper’s memoir “A Girl’s Guide to Missiles: Growing up in America’s Secret Desert” is about war. However, it’s not just about military warfare and the weapons used to wage it, developed in the laboratories in California’s China Lake Desert where Piper’s parents worked and raised her and her sister. Pairing keen childhood observations with contemporary thoughts on the way the world has shifted since her adolescence, Piper crafts a fresh, intimate perspective of America’s bigges

    At its core, Karen Piper’s memoir “A Girl’s Guide to Missiles: Growing up in America’s Secret Desert” is about war. However, it’s not just about military warfare and the weapons used to wage it, developed in the laboratories in California’s China Lake Desert where Piper’s parents worked and raised her and her sister. Pairing keen childhood observations with contemporary thoughts on the way the world has shifted since her adolescence, Piper crafts a fresh, intimate perspective of America’s biggest wars and shows how they are not that much different from the small, daily wars we wage in our own lives.

    At the heart of “A Girl’s Guide to Missiles” is the story of Piper’s parents, Earl and Mary, neither of whom wanted to end up a weapons developer. Earl, a WWII veteran who grew up poor and parentless, found there was little else he could do when no other job would take him and Mary found the work gave her a sense of purpose otherwise lacking from her life on the base. While there may have been more to unpack in the couple’s history on the base, Piper uses their decisions to show that after a while “knowing that war fills your bellies, peace can feel like starvation.”

    Beyond the narrative of weapons within Piper’s family, the book marvelously captures the charms and dangers of the physical surroundings of the desert as well as enriching perspectives on iconic figures and events through vivid depictions of the cultural surroundings of each era. Piper traces war through Kennedy, Nixon, Reagan, and Bush; through Germany, Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq; from newspapers, Tom Brokaw, 24-hour streaming, to social media. These seamlessly flow into one another, painting a glaring picture of the way war launched from policy to business and entertainment, all neatly confined into the perimeters of Piper’s childhood in China Lake.

    There are occasional moments that stray away from these targets, such as Piper’s intricately-detailed history with religion and her various romantic relationships. These anecdotes seem to point toward her impression of the personal wars we wage, but end up distracting from the notion more than they correspond.

    The book, as the name implies, serves as a guidebook and reminder of the irreparable damage we have caused in the past, where our reliance on war has taken us, and where it might lead in our future. At a point in time where even the next week is muddled with uncertainty, the book offers some, albeit grim, clarity as to how our nation operates in defending itself and suggests that we pay attention to the damage that we can mitigate in our own lives. It may be one of the few things left that we can still take control of.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Aria

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

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

  • 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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