Summary and book reviews of A Girl's Guide to Missiles by Karen Piper

A Girl's Guide to Missiles

Growing Up in America's Secret Desert

by Karen Piper

A Girl's Guide to Missiles by Karen Piper X
A Girl's Guide to Missiles by Karen Piper
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  • Published:
    Aug 2018, 336 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Adrienne Pisch
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About this Book

Book Summary

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 missiles.

The 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. But people who make missiles and other weapons are regular working people, with domestic routines and everyday dilemmas, and four of them were Karen Piper's parents, her sister, and--when she needed summer jobs--herself. Her dad designed the Sidewinder, which was ultimately used catastrophically in Vietnam. When her mom got tired of being a stay-at-home mom, she went to work on the Tomahawk. Once, when a missile nose needed to be taken offsite for final testing, her mother loaded it into the trunk of the family car, and set off down a Los Angeles freeway. Traffic was heavy, and so she stopped off at the mall, leaving the missile in the parking lot.

Piper sketches in the belief systems--from Amway's get-rich schemes to propaganda in The Rocketeer to evangelism, along with fears of a Lemurian takeover and Charles Manson--that governed their lives. Her memoir is also a search for the truth of the past and what really brought her parents to China Lake with two young daughters, a story that reaches back to her father's World War II flights with contraband across Europe. Finally, it recounts the crossroads moment in a young woman's life when she finally found a way out of a culture of secrets and fear, and out of the desert.

Excerpt
A Girl's Guide to Missiles

We went through the base's main gate, where a U.S. Marine checked my dad's badge. A sign next to the gate read "Loose Lips Sink Ships" in big red letters over a picture of a sinking ship. The marine saluted briskly when he saw my dad was a captain, and my dad saluted back, crisply and more sure than anything I had ever seen him do. "Makes you feel important, that does," he said over his shoulder, "though they are so sloppy about salutes these days." At our insistence, he demonstrated how a proper salute should be done, while my mom urged him to keep both hands on the wheel.

Past the gate, the street was wide and lined with sycamore trees and automatic sprinklers that sparkled like rainbows in the sun. But then we turned off the main road, and it was all tumbleweeds and dirt again, with rows and rows of identical duplexes on identical street blocks. The buildings were washed out and faded from the sun, their paint peeling. In this hostile ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

Karen Piper succeeds in both telling the story of her youth and commentating on the pervasive ideologies that shaped her. Sometimes the prose needs stronger transitions, but the stories she tells are engaging and highlight her unique perspective.   (Reviewed by Adrienne Pisch).

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Media Reviews

Publishers Weekly
This is a fascinating look at growing up in Cold War America, as told by a sharp and affable narrator.

Kirkus Reviews
Starred Review. A little-known corner of the Atomic Age comes into focus through Piper's skilled storytelling

Author Blurb Bill Roorbach, author of Life Among Giants, The Remedy for Love, and The Girl of the Lake
A Girl's Guide to Missiles is a family portrait, a missile-science primer, a coming of nuclear age. Piper captures the soul of an era that might not be so long gone as we would hope.

Author Blurb Lydia Yuknavitch, author of The Book of Joan and The Chronology of Water
Her memoir riveted me--I read it in one sitting holding my breath as she made a story braid from growing up a girl and growing up in the military industrial complex at the China Lake missile range. Gender, family, war, and American myth-making make this an unforgettable book and a radical act of truth-telling.

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Beyond the Book

The Cold War UFO Craze

Roswell Daily Record, July 8, 1947 In A Girl's Guide to Missiles, Karen Piper overhears her father talking about a coworker's belief in aliens. It's just one of many moments in which she associates her childhood at the top secret China Lake Naval Station with paranoia, secrecy and fear of the unknown. While Piper knows that the secrecy of her home is due to weapons development, conspiracy theories began to grow across the country about what actually took place in these facilities, and the most prevailing involved extraterrestrial visitors.

One of the most famous UFO sightings occurred in 1947 at the Army Air Field in Roswell, New Mexico, when a flying disc was observed falling from the sky and crashing to the ground. Roswell's official statement was that this object was ...

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