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A Girl's Guide to Missiles

Growing Up in America's Secret Desert
Narrated by: Rebecca Lowman
Length: 10 hrs and 28 mins
4 out of 5 stars (44 ratings)

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Publisher's 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.

©2018 Karen Piper (P)2018 Penguin Audio

Critic Reviews

“Karen Piper's A Girl's Guide To Missiles reaches back into the body of American war and retrieves the heart of a girl, still beating, not beaten. 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.” (Lidia Yuknavitch, author of The Book of Joan and The Chronology of Water)

“Karen Piper lived the escalating levels of insanity of the cold war from the inside, playing her girlhood games in the top secret labs and working beside her parents in a hidden corner of the Mojave. The bombs of tomorrow were a family affair, and the truth was always tricky. For Piper, who writes like a dream, failed test shots mirror busted romances, and the excesses of the era eventually lead our missile girl to communal life in a bomb-proof Oregon. 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.” (Bill Roorbach, author of Life Among Giants, The Remedy for Love, and The Girl of the Lake

“Brilliantly overdetermined setup, one that yields both black comedy and sickening lurches of insight.” (Harper's

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It's about more than China Lake!

With the exception of a year in Oregon, I spent my first 9 years in China Lake: 1950 to 1959. Much of what Karen Piper writes rings true, even though I left 12 years before she moved there. I’m the only remaining member of my family to have lived in China Lake, so I’ve had trouble piecing those years back into a coherent narrative. Pipher’s book helps. For example:

For years, I’ve described China Lake as “Los Alamos Lite.” I did not know that the triggering mechanism for one of the 2 atomic bombs was developed there! So there was a connection, even though I was just trying to describe what it felt like to live there. What I remember was a community of extremely smart and accomplished people dedicated to science and education who made sure that the schools their children attended were first rate. Piper's time in the Christian school is different from my experience. But in the totality of her overall story, it describes the difficulty fundamentalist Christians have reconciling their beliefs with science, especially when science is their career.

I remember a classmate of mine who’s father invented the Sidewinder. Given my grade school years of ’56 to ’59, this is likely to be true. The Sidewinder is the best known achievement of the China Lake community. It’s fine with me that Piper gives her father credit for working on it; it has been through many iterations.

I gained my love for science in the schools in China Lake and the truly “learning community” that was fostered by the parents in our neighborhood. We spent endless hours, without adults around, catching lizards and reading about them on our own.

I remember being outside in the night with the neighborhood kids and parents, spotting and tracking Sputnik across the sky. I remember the worry in the air; but I also remember the adults assuring us that we weren’t so far behind. These adults probably knew better than most.

The reviews criticizing this book miss the point (this includes Amazon reviews of the printed book). More accurately, they confuse the trees for the forest. Nit-picking details about whether jets flew low over China Lake and Ridgecrest while she lived there contradicts my memories of the same! Maybe I’m confusing these memories with attending air shows, but when I lived there, I remember stories about pilots doing this, ala Chuck Yeager.

Similar to other reviewers, I wanted more China Lake history, but Piper’s memoir of her imperfect life tell a story of a woman determined to grow despite missteps. She is always grateful and kind to her family, and to the odd place that is China Lake. I was gratified that her story took her to finding the archives of the years her family worked there. It was stunning to read her discovery about the global warming warnings from a China Lake scientist during the mid ’60’s. Talk about missed opportunities!

A couple days before discovering this book on Audible, I had been looking at Google Maps, trying to figure out where I had lived and landmarks I might remember. Thank you Karen Piper for making this journey come to life!

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

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  • Jean
  • Santa Cruz, CA, United States
  • 12-23-18

Middling

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.

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.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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DNF on chapter 10 when Piper is 10

The synopsis is misleading. I only made it to chapter 10 because the memoir can basically be characterized as yet another well-written novel about a women raised by crazy Christians. Of course she believes it too and seems to be even more out there than her parents. At age 10 she decides to go to a religious school and her parents and sister go along because she is the "baby boss" of the house. I found the author rather unlikable in the first place and the "baby boss" bit was sort of the final straw in a pretty boring narrative. I guess I'm tired of reading about religious fanatics. Their nonsensical beliefs used to fascinate me in that "looking at a car crash" kind of way, but in the world we live in today, I suppose I don't want to be reminded about how deluded people can be and what damage the delusional can wreak on others.

I have to guess she regains her sanity at some point since she wrote the book and the historical bits were interesting, but I just couldn't hang in there.

9 of 16 people found this review helpful

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Needed a better editor

The book is really interesting...until it isn't. Piper gets too far into her own adult issues without making them interesting, insightful. Maybe had she waited until she had sorted more of herself out, or if she had benefited more from the sorting-through process--a better editor would have told her to cull most of that out, or to go back and figure it out more so that she would have something of substance to share. I enjoyed the stuff about China Lake, but when we get to her relationships with men, it's clunky, even though a deeper thinker might have found the through-line between it all. Also, when she relates, without reflection, how she asked her mother if she loved her father, then was completely upset at the unsatisfying answer--girl, ya got work to do. And, no awareness that there are more kinds of marital love/successful marriages than the narrow definition she insists on for her parents. She is supposedly searching for understanding of China Lake, Baptists, and her family, but makes it clear she isn't ready to deal with all of it. And not ready to write a book for us to read.

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Awful. Not about missiles.

One of those titles that totally misleads. Very little here about missiles or the women who were involved in developing. Rubbish!

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  • GW
  • 04-20-19

Interesting story, but some inaccuracies

I thoroughly enjoyed the first half of the book where she shares her experiences of growing up at China Lake. I'm very familiar with the area and could relate with many of her experiences. I did notice some inaccuracies with some of her information though. It was a bit of a struggle to finish, as her storyline kind of hops around a bit. The narrator did an excellent job. Overall an interesting book though as she delves into her personal story of growing up and discovering the world outside of the desert.

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Expect to learn about missiles?

Read with to emotion at all. Kept waiting for a plot but found author wandering through her life stating she didn’t know anything about relationships, love, marriage, education, let alone missiles. When I read the beginning I was looking forward to the book. The narration probably made it worse than it was.

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I loved it!

I was a scientist at China Lake and all three of my daughters grew up there. They have all grown up to be very successful in life as did Karen. I found the story of her life to be deeply moving.

The descriptions she gave of life and the people there (many of whom l knew) were mostly accurate. The errors were minor and did not effect the story. The only thing that bothered me was the negative tone of her story. I don’t attribute it to China Lake but to the angst of growing up into early adulthood.

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loved it

this is an amazing history/story/memoir/ what you will with a true insiders perspective of the DoD and China Lake. But also. it's the human side of the far right and the far left - all stangely experienced by one woman.

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I really enjoyed it!

I'm so glad that I crossed paths with this book, such and eye opening story!!

2 of 4 people found this review helpful

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  • Lucy
  • 02-11-19

A very well written book

A very well written book. An evocative memoir of an interesting time, well told, well written.